A teacher sued her campus principal and two assistant superintendents for attempting to coerce her into resigning from the district.
The principal and two assistant principals received an anonymous email that was later determined to have been sent by the teacher's ex-fiance. The email contained a link to a website where nude pictures of the teacher could be viewed. The principal reported the email to the two assistant superintendents, who directed him to bring the teacher to his office with the pictures on his computer screen for "shock factor."
The teacher was pulled from her classroom and brought to the principal's office without being told the purpose of the meeting. When she arrived, the principal confronted her with the pictures on the screen and asked if they were of her. The teacher confirmed that they were, but said that she had not created the website, posted the photographs or authorized or consented to the publishing of the photographs. She explained that she had taken the pictures and sent them to her ex-fiance with whom she had been in a long-distance relationship.
The principal proceeded to scroll through the photographs and told the teacher that she could either resign or be placed on administrative leave with pay and incur an investigation that would require HR and the school board to see the pictures. The teacher asked for more time to make a decision and the principal said no. He said that the pictures were being viewed by parents and students and if they proceeded with an investigation, "everyone" would know. The principal gave her a pad of paper and a pen and instructed her what to write in a letter of resignation. He then had her escorted out of the building. During this time, the pictures remained up on the oversized computer monitor and were allegedly seen by people passing by the office.
The teacher rescinded her resignation and requested that the district investigate the circumstances surrounding the incident. As a result, she was reinstated to her position, paid back pay and benefits and moved to a different campus. She sued the principal and two assistant superintendents involved in the attempt to coerce her into resignation, alleging that they planned the intentional display of the photos knowing that it would negatively impact her mental and emotional state so that they could manipulate, intimate and humiliate her into resigning. She further alleged that the principal negligently or purposefully exposed staff, students and parents to the images on his monitor, in violation of a statute that prohibits disclosure of intimate visual material for the purpose of intentional infliction of emotional distress. In response, the administrators relied on a statute that would protect them in their exercise of free speech and claimed that this law protected them. The district court agreed that the administrator's actions were protected free speech and dismissed the lawsuit. The teacher appealed to the court of appeals.
The administrators claimed that their actions were protected free speech because an internet posting of nude or pornographic pictures by a teacher would violate teacher and student policies and could impact her ability to be a successful teacher, which is a matter of concern to the public. They claimed that it was their responsibility to investigate these matters and take disciplinary action if appropriate. The court of appeals disagreed, stating that it was not the authority of the administrators to take the action that was in question in lawsuit, but rather the manner in which they conducted a private employment matter. Although school districts have a legitimate interest in investigating matters such as those involved in this complaint, the teacher was not challenging that general authority. Rather, she was challenging the manner in which that authority was used.
The court of appeals reversed the decision of the trial court to dismiss the lawsuit.