A Pennsylvania District Court dismissed teacher Natalie Munroe’s violation of free speech claim against the Central Bucks School District. Ms. Munroe accused the School District and some administrators for violating her free speech when she was fired after her blog posts about her students went public.
In 2011, Ms. Munroe posted about her students on her blog. Without mentioning any by name, Ms. Munroe referred to her students as “out of control,” “loathsome,” “disengaged whiners,” and “rat-like.” Although the posts were meant to be anonymous, the name “Natalie M.” and her photo appeared on the webpage. When students, parents, and administrators learned about these posts the school suspended Ms. Munroe for the remainder of the 2011 school year. Upon her return to the classroom, students had the choice to opt-out of her class. A year later, in June 2012, the school board voted to terminate Ms. Munroe for her poor in-classroom performance. The Central Bucks School District contended that it did not fire Ms. Munroe over her blog but over poor performance.
Rather than focusing on the reason for termination, The District Court Judge, Cynthia Rufe, dismissed the claim because she said the blog post failed to meet the standard of speech that would be constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. She relied on a two-prong test set forth by the Supreme Court in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006), to rule on whether the public employee engaged in constitutionally protected speech. The test first required Judge Rufe to analyze whether the employee spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern or as a public official. Second, Judge Rufe had to decide whether the speech outweighed the states interest in promoting efficiency.
Judge Rufe ruled that the blog posts did not provide enough value to the debate over educational reform to outweigh the School District’s right to maintain an efficient educational environment. She explained that the blog focused mainly on Ms. Munroe’s personal life, and rarely addressed issues of greater public concern that are typically protected in free-speech cases involving a teacher. She cited examples such as proposed tax increases or academic integrity as topics that would have been constitutionally protected. Judge Rufe wrote, “Munroe mostly complained about the failure of her students to live up to her expectations, and focused on negative interactions between herself and her students.” Second, Judge Rufe ruled that the blog was “sufficiently disruptive so as to diminish any legitimate interest in its expression, and thus her expression was not protected.”
After the ruling, Ms. Munroe and her attorneys said that they will be appealing to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling is a warning to public employees to be careful about what they post on social media, even when they claim to be acting as private citizens.
A special thank you to Maria Ehlinger, a Summer Associate at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for her assistance with this blog post.