The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals  for the Third Judicial Circuit ruled this week that a school district in suburban Philadelphia was within its rights to fire Natalie Munroe, an English teacher in the district who blogged that her students were “rude, disengaged, lazy whiners.”  Munroe v. Central Bucks School District (3d Cir., September 4, 2015)

Natalie Munroe was hired by the Central Bucks School District in 2006, and was assigned to teach English at Central Bucks East High School in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Supervisors considered Munroe to be an effective, competent teacher.  

In 2009, Munroe began a blog.  She blogged mostly about personal matters, including her food and film preferences, and her children. On a number of occasions, however, she wrote about her students and co-workers. Without using names or dates, Munroe complained about the rudeness and lack of motivation among her students, referring to them as “jerk,” “rat-like,” “dunderhead,” “whiny, and “frightfully dim.” Blogging while she was grading papers, plaintiff made a list of comments she wished she could write, such as: “A complete and utter jerk in all ways. Though academically ok, your kid has no other redeeming qualities”; ‘Lazy asshole”; “Sneaking, complaining, jerkoff”;   “Just as bad as his sibling. Don’t you know how to raise kids?”; “Liar and cheater”; “One of the most annoying students I’ve had the displeasure of being locked in a room with for an extended time”; “Weirdest kid I’ve ever met”; “Am concerned that your kid is going to come in one day and open fire on the school. (Wish I was kidding.)”; and “Utterly loathsome in all imaginable ways.” In one blog post, Munroe wrote: “My students are out of control. They are rude, disengaged, lazy whiners. They curse, discuss drugs, talk back, argue for grades, complain about everything, fancy themselves entitled to whatever they desire, and are just generally annoying.” Plaintiff also wrote that parents were “breeding a disgusting brood of insolent, unappreciative, selfish brats.” On one occasion, she referred to a co-worker by first name and with a vulgar epithet. Plaintiff also complained about school administrators.

The school administration learned about Munroe’s blog in February 2011. An administrator summoned Munroe to a meeting, confronted her with printed copies of the blog, and placed her on immediate, unpaid suspension. News of Munroe’s suspension attracted the attention of several major news agencies and syndicates, including CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, Fox News, Reuters, the Associated Press, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Munroe appeared in several televised interviews, where she defended her views and insisted that she had been unfairly disciplined. At the same time, students and parents stated that they would not return to Munroe’s class because of what she had written in her blog. Munroe’s employment was terminated in June 2012.

Munroe filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the school district, the district superintendent and her school principal alleging that defendants retaliated against her for a legitimate exercise of her First Amendment rights when she criticized the school, her co-workers, and her students. After conducting discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment.

The district court granted defendants’ motion, dismissing plaintiff’s lawsuit. Munroe v. Central Bucks School District, Civ. Actrion No. 12-03546 (D.C. PA, June 25, 2014) The Court concluded that defendants did not violate plaintiffs’ constitutional right to free expression because:

[T]his Court has determined as a matter of law that plaintiff’s comments do not merit protection …. [P]laintiff’s speech, in both effect and tone, was sufficiently disruptive so as to diminish any legitimate interest in its expression, and thus her expression was not protected. (Emphasis added)

Plaintiff appealed. The federal appeals court first discussed the legal standard of review. The court found that the law required the courts to “‘balance . . . 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 workplace efficiency and avoiding workplace disruption.” Under that standard, the appeals court affirmed the district court’s ruling. The appeals court found that:

We find that Munroe’s various expressions of hostility and disgust against her students would disrupt her duties as a high school teacher and the functioning of the School District … . [Thus,] the speech at issue here was not protected because the disruption diminished any legitimate interest in its expression. Furthermore, the First Amendment does not require a school district to continue to employ a teacher who expresses the kind of hostility and disgust against her students that Munroe did on her blog and then publicly defends such comments to the media—which results in serious negative reactions on the part of both students and parents, the submission of numerous parental “opt-out” requests, and the hiring of an additional teacher. (Emphasis added)

Circuit Judge Thomas L. Ambro dissented, saying the majority did not give enough weight to Munroe’s claim that the school district punished her for giving interviews to national media outlets about her suspension:

If Munroe had a First Amendment right to say her piece before a national audience …,  then summary judgment is inappropriate to the extent her TV appearances, coupled with her comments made to print media, played a role in her dismissal and the School District wouldn’t have taken the same action absent them.

The opinion of the federal district court is annexed here – Munroe v. Central Bucks School District, Civ. Actrion No. 12-03546 (D.C. PA, June 25, 2014)

The decision filed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals is annexed here – Munroe v. Central Bucks School District (3d Cir., September 4, 2015)

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