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Media Alerts - Monroe v. Central Bucks School District - Third Circuit
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September 9, 2015
  Monroe v. Central Bucks School District - Third Circuit
Headline: Incendiary Posts that Disparage Students Not Protected First Amendment Speech, Third Circuit Holds

Area of Law: First Amendment, Public Employment Law

Issues Presented:
Whether blog posts that disparaged a teacher's students were protected First Amendment speech.

Brief Summary:

Natalie Monroe, a teacher in Bucks School District (the "District"), published a series of blog posts disparaging her students. The District found out about the posts and eventually fired her because of them. Monroe argued that her termination was illegal because the blog posts constituted protected First Amendment speech. The Third Circuit held that, while her speech was of sufficient public interest to warrant some degree of protection, the huge disruption caused by her highly incendiary posts was enough to justify the District's decision to fire her.

Extended Summary:

Monroe, a teacher in Bucks School District, maintained a personal blog wherein she occasionally disparaged her students and their parents. After her blog was discovered by students and reporters, she was suspended, subject to protests and requests by hundreds of students to opt out of being assigned to her classroom. A year after returning to school and receiving a series of negative performance reviews, Monroe was fired and she sued on a retaliation theory for exercising her freedom of speech rights.

The Third Circuit affirmed that Monroe's speech was not protected by the First Amendment. The Third Circuit held that, although Monroe's speech was related to the public interest, that her speech failed the Pickering balancing test - weighing a government employee's free speech rights against the interests of the government as an employer.

The Third Circuit held that Monroe's speech barely met the "public concern" requirement of the Pickering balancing test - where the subject of the speech is of concern to the community or of some significant news interest. The Third Circuit noted that a government employee's speech can meet the public concern requirement as long as it is not solely related to mundane employment grievances. In contrast to the District Court, the Third Circuit found that Monroe's occasional blog posts touching on broader issues such as academic integrity, honor, and the importance of hard work were sufficient to qualify the speech at issue as sufficiently of public concern.

The Third Circuit, however, held that the disruption that discovery of Monroe's blog posts created were sufficient to swing the balance definitively in favor of the government. Distinguishing from cases where the employee in question was participating in whistleblowing activity, the Third Circuit held that, even if her blog posts were speech of the highest value, the disruption caused at the school was so great as to preclude it from protection - because her "expressions of hostility and disgust against her students" would interfere with her duties as a teacher and the functioning of the District overall. The Third Circuit found the District had gone beyond its burden to show merely the possibility of disruption and had, in fact showed evidence of actual disruption. The Third Circuit also found that her year of employment following the blog posts and previous comments by School District officials about respecting Monroe's First Amendment rights did not preclude the District from arguing her speech was not, under the law, protected by the First Amendment.

Judge Ambro filed a dissenting opinion. In it, he argued that the District's termination decision was greatly influenced by Munroe's decision to grant a number of media interviews explaining her side of the situation after she learned of her firing. In Judge Ambro's view, this greatly increased the public significance of her speech, and the District offered insufficient evidence as to how these media interviews, as opposed to her initial blog posts, caused disruption at the school.

Find the full opinion at:

http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/143509p.pdf

Panel: Ambro and Cowen, Circuit Judges, and Restani, Judge

Argument Date: June 8, 2015

Date of Issued Opinion: September 4, 2015

Docket Number: No. 14-3509

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Philip Jones

Counsel:

Stanley B. Cheiken, Esq. (Argued) for Appellant

Kimberly A. Boyer-Cohen, Esq. (Argued) for Appellee

Sean A. Fields, Esq. for Amicus Appellee - Pennsylvania School Board Association

Author of Opinion: Cowen, Circuit Judge

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Supervisor: Prof. Mark Anderson

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 09/09/2015 12:06 PM     3rd Circuit  

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