Teacher’s Blog Disparaging Students Is Not Protected Speech, Appeals Court Rules

By Mark Walsh — September 08, 2015 4 min read
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A federal appeals court has ruled that a Pennsylvania teacher who disparaged students and parents in personal blog posts was not protected by the First Amendment from dismissal by her school district.

A 2-1 panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, held “reluctantly” that teacher Natalie Munroe’s blog posts were on matters of public concern. But it went on to hold that the teacher’s expression caused disruption at her school and that the Central Bucks school district’s interests outweighed hers.

Munroe, an English teacher at Central Bucks East High School in Doylestown, Pa., started her blog in 2009, initially writing about food, film, her children, and yoga. But the teacher soon began writing about her students and co-workers, though without identifying them or where she worked.

In one 2010 post that figures significantly in the appeals court’s analysis, Munroe described comments she would like to see added to the list of “canned” observations teachers use to fill out report cards. (The canned comments included ones such as “cooperative in class,” “talks persistently,” and “is easily distracted.”)

Munroe’s wish list included these comments:

  • “Seems smarter than she actually is.”
  • “Has a massive chip on her shoulder.”
  • “Has no business being in Honors.”
  • “A complete and utter jerk in all ways. Although academically ok, your child has no other redeeming qualities.”
  • “Dunderhead.”
  • “Complainer.”
  • “Nowhere near as good as her sibling. Are you sure they’re related?”
  • “Rat-like.”
  • “Just as bad as his sibling. Don’t you know how to raise kids?”
  • “Whiny, simpering grade-grubber with an unrealistically high perception of own ability level.”
  • “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.)”
  • “Utterly loathsome in all imaginable ways.”
  • “There’s no other way to say this: I hate your kid.”

By 2011, students were circulating some of Munroe’s blog posts, and her speech came to the attention of school administrators. They said they began hearing from parents who said they did not want their children to remain in her classes. The district allowed many opt outs.

Although there is evidence in the record that the school district weighed how it could fire her over the blog posts, Munroe went on maternity leave and returned in 2011, with school administrators paying lip service to her employment rights.

The district fired Munroe in 2012 based on a negative performance review for that school year, and it contended that her blog posts were not the reason.

Munroe sued the district on First Amendment grounds, arguing that the blog posts were indeed the reason for her termination, and that her posts were protected speech on matters of public concern. A federal district court ruled against her last year.

In its Sept. 4 decision in Munroe v. Central Bucks School District, the 3rd Circuit court majority seemed to put little stock in the idea that it wasn’t the blog posts that motivated the district’s dismissal of the teacher. But it said it didn’t have to decide that issue.

The appeals court applied the U.S. Supreme Court’s balancing test for public employee speech from Pickering v. Board of Education of Township High School District 205.

Under the 1968 Pickering test, which arose out of a case involving a high school teacher’s letters to a newspaper complaining about the school budget, a public employee’s speech is protected if it is on a matter of public concern and if the employee’s interest outweighs the public employer’s interest in an efficient workplace.

The appeals court said that even Munroe’s list of comments she wished she could add to student report cards met the public concern test of Pickering.

“Humor, satire, and even personal invective could be used in order to make or embellish a point about a matter of political, social or other concern to the community, such as a school district’s grading policies and practices,” the court majority said.

But the majority had little trouble concluding that Munroe’s blog posts were so disruptive at school as to tip the Pickering balance in the school district’s favor.

“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,” the court said. “Students and parents were ... presented with a teacher who expressed hostility and disgust against her own students and who, when publicly confronted with her comments, not only refused to apologize—but even went so far as to defend her derogatory statements in the local and national media.”

“When a teacher’s derogatory comments about his or her students cause numerous parents to tell the school district that they ‘don’t want her as my child’s teacher,’ it is appropriate to conclude that his or her speech impedes the performance of the speaker’s duties as a teacher,” the court said.

Writing in dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas L. Ambro said he would revive Munroe’s suit because not enough consideration was given to the role that the teacher’s interviews with the news media may have played in the district’s actions.

“The bottom line: too many signs suggest this was all a set-up that a jury needs to sort out,” Ambro said.

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