One of the issues that teachers ask me about the most is what First Amendment speech rights public employees have. Most of those individuals are then shocked when they realize just how limited the right really is. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals recently delivered just such a shock to a principal who was fired for trying to do the right thing. See McArdle v. Peoria Sch. Dist., No. 11-2437 (7th Cir., Jan. 31, 2013).
Read on for more information but first… From my post last week, you may recall that this week is Missouri NEA’s Legal Week, where we provide free webinars on legal subjects to Missouri NEA members. Conveniently, one of those presentations is a full primer on First Amendment rights of public employees that I put together with my coworker, Susan Wagner. A recording of the presentation is available here and I definitely recommend checking it out to help understand all of the aspects of the case.
Without further ado, on to the case…
In McArdle, a new principal was hired for a school after the prior principal was promoted to a district-wide administrative position. Shortly after beginning the job, the new principal began to discover irregularities in how the school had been run under the prior principal. These irregularities included misuse of district funds, violation of policies on payments to student teachers, and circumvention of rules covering admission of nonresident students. After the principal brought her concerns to the former principal, now her direct supervisor, she was placed on a professional improvement plan and then terminated, all based on recommendations from the former principal. The terminated principal then brought suit for violation of her First Amendment rights. The trial court granted summary judgment for the district and the principal appealed.
In reviewing the principal’s First Amendment claim, the Court focused on whether her speech was made “pursuant to official duties,” thereby removing any First Amendment protections. The Court noted that the determination of official duties is not reliant on the individual’s job description, legal requirements, or even routine duties actually performed. The Court then found that issues like the reputation of the school, its adherence to district policy, and its finances were all “matters that directly affected her area of responsibility.” Therefore, the Court held that the principal was speaking pursuant to official duties and there was no protection for her speech.
Unfortunately, cases like McArdle are far more common than ones where the speech is found to be protected. Public employees need to be very aware of just how little protection they have and be very careful when they are addressing potentially controversial matters.