In 2011, Natalie Munroe, a teacher in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, was suspended, and later fired, as the result of several blog posts she authored during the previous two years. The blog, which was open to the public, was discovered by several students at the high school where she taught. It was posted on social media, and the firestorm began.
Within the blog, Munroe “vented” about her students, teachers and other administration at the school. Using words, expletives, and phrases such as “utterly loathsome in all imaginable ways,” “dunderhead,” and “weirdest kid I’ve ever met,” Munroe facetiously lamented that she could not utilize such descriptors in her report card comments. Additionally, she complained about students and their families by posting, among other things, that parents were “breeding a disgusting brood of insolent, unappreciative, selfish brats,” and “these kids are the devil’s spawn.”
Initially, Munroe was suspended from her position upon discovery of the blogs. She was permitted to return to her position the following school year. However, due to the overwhelming complaints from parents, the School District hired a “shadow” teacher to take on students that had opted out of her class. After extremely poor end of the year reviews, the School District fired her. Munroe then brought a retaliation action under Section 1983, a Federal statute, alleging that the School District had violated her First Amendment rights.
The case made its way to the Third Circuit after being dismissed by the District Court. On September 4, 2015, the Court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal and found in favor of the School District, stating that Ms. Munroe’s blog posts were not protected speech under the First Amendment. The court used the test set forth in Pickering, which requires balancing “the interests of the employee, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern, and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.” The Court found that the speech (Ms. Munroe’s blog posts) caused enough disruption to outweigh for the School District as an employer, the interests of Munroe as a citizen/employee. While not all of her posts were related to students and the school, the Court considered factors such as the parents’ and students’ outrage over the derogatory posts and the need to hire another teacher to take on students who refused to take her class. The Court stated that these actions were enough disruption to significantly impede the State’s public service of educating youth.
The Court also considered the students’ reaction to the posts. It concluded that it would be unlikely that any student would feel comfortable being taught by this teacher or approaching her with questions or concerns after class, stating, “the position of public school teacher requires a degree of public trust not found in many other positions of public employment.”
If you have questions about how this case may apply to your District or if you wish to receive guidance on this issue, please contact our School Law Group.