Justices Decline Special Education Teacher’s Free-Speech Case

By Mark Walsh — November 29, 2010 1 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the appeal of a Michigan special education teacher who claimed she was fired for complaining that the size of her teaching caseload kept her from providing the proper amount of instruction to each of her students.

The Traverse City Area Public Schools in Michigan declined to renew the probationary teaching contract of Susan M. Fox in 2007 because of what the district described as her deficiencies. Fox claimed that the adverse job action resulted from her complaints to supervisors that her caseload of special needs students exceeded what was allowed by law.

The teacher says in court papers that in addition to serving 21 special education students, she was asked to teach an elementary school reading program that brought her total number of students to 34.

Fox sued over her nonrenewal on First Amendment free-speech grounds, but both a federal district court and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled against her in May. The 6th Circuit said Fox’s complaints were covered by the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos, which held that on-the-job speech by public employees is not protected by the First Amendment.

Fox’s Supreme Court appeal argued that her case presented a good opportunity for the justices to clarify whether Garcetti should apply to the on-the-job speech of lower-level public employees such as her.

“The effect of Garcetti is to put conscientious public employees who observe wrongdoing in a no-win position,” the brief said.

The school district filed a brief saying that the 6th Circuit had made a “straightforward application” of Garcetti and had properly ruled against Fox.

The Supreme Court declined without comment to hear the teacher’s appeal in Fox v. Traverse Area City Public Schools (Case No. 10-229).

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.