Teacher’s Blog Posts Slamming Students Not Protected, Judge Rules

By Mark Walsh — July 31, 2014 3 min read
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A Pennsylvania high school teacher’s personal blog containing disparaging descriptions of her students such as “jerk,” “dunderhead,” and “whiny, simpering grade-grubber” was not protected speech under the First Amendment, a federal district judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe of Philadelphia ruled for the Central Bucks school district, which dismissed teacher Natalie Munroe in 2012, more than a year after it learned of her blog. The district claimed it dismissed the teacher for unsatisfactory job performance unrelated to the blog.

Court papers say 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.

Parents were “breeding a disgusting brood of insolent, unappreciative, selfish brats,” Munroe wrote in one post.

In another post, she expressed frustration about the grading process, listing comments she wished she could write on report cards, such as: “A complete and utter jerk in all ways. Though academically ok, your kid has no other redeeming qualities"; “Just as bad as his sibling. Don’t you know how to raise kids?"; “Liar and cheater"; and “Utterly loathsome in all imaginable ways.”

The federal judge said the evidence showed Munroe may have challenged her students to discover her obscure blog. When they did, in February 2011, word of the blog spread fast among the students and the school community. Soon, a local reporter and then the Huffington Post wrote stories about it, and Munroe was featured on TV news channels and other media outlets.

Munroe was suspended without pay, and the superintendent expressed a desire to dismiss her, court papers say. But Munroe continued in her job through most of the next school year, before the district fired her based on the alleged unsatisfactory job performance.

The teacher sued, saying she had been retaliated against for speech on matters of public concern that was protected by the First Amendment.

In her July 25 decision in Munroe v. Central Bucks School District, Rufe said that while some of the teacher’s blog posts touched on matters of public concern such as academic integrity and students’ lack of effort, the blog’s “overall thrust” devalued the discussion of public issues.

“Far from implicating larger discussions of educational reform, pedagogical methods, or specific school policies, [Munroe] mostly complained about the failure of her students to live up to her expectations, and focused on negative interactions between herself and her students,” the judge said.

Rufe said Munroe’s speech was distinguishable in tone and content from public-employee speech that has enjoyed protection in cases such as 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.

“Here, Munroe’s blog contains gratuitously demeaning and insulting language inextricably intertwined with her occasional discussions of public issues, and far from the ‘massive apathy’ with which Pickering‘s letters were received, Munroe’s statements attracted considerable negative attention, from concerned parents and from the public at large.”

Rufe held that Munroe’s blog posts did not merit First Amendment protection under the Pickering balancing test. The judge said it was thus unnecessary to decide whether the statements were a direct cause of her dismissal.

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