Teachers Fired Over Classroom Practices Lose Appeals

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Two public school teachers who were fired for using controversial methods or materials in the classroom have lost their separate court appeals.

The Colorado Supreme Court last week upheld the dismissal of Jefferson County teacher Alfred E. Wilder, who got in trouble for showing the Bernardo Bertolucci film "1900" to his high school logic and debate class.

The court ruled 4-3 that the teacher violated the school's policy on controversial teaching materials by failing to get the principal's approval to show the R-rated 1977 film, which includes frontal nudity, sexual scenes, drug use, and graphic violence.

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court has thrown out a $750,000 jury award won by Cecilia "Cissy" Lacks, a Missouri high school teacher who was fired for allowing her students to use profanity in their creative-writing assignments.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled unanimously that the Ferguson-Florissant school board was justified in firing Ms. Lacks in 1995 for failing to enforce the student-discipline code's prohibition against profane language.

"The school board has a legitimate academic interest in prohibiting profanity by students in their creative writing," U.S. Circuit Judge Richard S. Arnold said in the June 22 ruling.

Ms. Lacks' case has attracted nationwide attention. She was a 22-year teaching veteran in the Ferguson-Florissant district when she allowed her Berkeley High School students, most of whom were African-American, to use street language in short plays they wrote for a class assignment in the fall of 1994.

The plays, as well as some students' poetry that was also at issue, dealt with sex, teenage pregnancy, gangs, and drugs and included a steady stream of obscenities, street jargon, and "black dialect." ("Expletives Deleted," June 21, 1995.)

After viewing videotapes of classroom performances of the student plays, administrators charged Ms. Lacks with violating school board policy.

In a lengthy public hearing before the board in the spring of 1995, Ms. Lacks and others defended her teaching methods as "student centered" and designed to unleash creativity in disaffected students.

Administrators argued that the student-discipline code, which all teachers were required to enforce, prohibited profanity, even in creative assignments. They said Ms. Lacks had been warned before about profanities in the student newspaper, which she once edited.

The school board dismissed Ms. Lacks. She sued the district, alleging violations of state law and the First Amendment guarantee of free expression. She also alleged racial discrimination: Ms. Lacks is white and the principal and an assistant superintendent involved in reviewing the case are black.

'Social Order'

A federal district judge ordered Ms. Lacks reinstated in her job, saying that her firing was not supported under state law by substantial evidence. A jury awarded her $500,000 on her First Amendment claim and $250,000 on her race-discrimination claim.

The 11,000-student school district appealed to the St. Louis-based 8th Circuit court.

In its ruling, the appellate panel held that the school board had enough evidence to conclude that Ms. Lacks "willfully" violated board policy by allowing profanity in the creative-writing assignments.

Judge Arnold cited a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Bethel v. Fraser, which upheld the discipline of a student for using sexually suggestive language in a speech before a student assembly.

The high court said in Fraser that "schools must teach by example the shared values of a civilized social order."

Jeremiah A. Collins, one of Ms. Lacks' lawyers, said the full 8th Circuit court would be asked to throw out the panel's ruling and rehear the case.

"We think the opinion is wrong on the law on a number of points," he said.

'Epic, Artful'

In the Colorado case, Mr. Wilder had shown "1900" to 17- and 18-year-old seniors at Columbine High School in 1995. The movie depicts the history of fascism in Italy from 1900 through World War II.

Mr. Bertolucci, the director, testified by phone from Italy in defense of the teacher at one administrative hearing. But the school board fired Mr. Wilder, citing the showing of the film and what it said was a history of not fulfilling his classroom duties.

A state appeals court ordered the teacher reinstated, saying the board had violated his First Amendment free-speech rights.

A divided Colorado Supreme Court ruled for the school board on June 29. The majority said it should have occurred to Mr. Wilder that the film clearly fell within the controversial-materials policy because of its "full frontal nudity, oral sex, masturbation, profanity, cocaine abuse, and graphic violence."

The dissenting justices described the film as "generational, epic, artful," and defended a teacher's right to use professional judgment in selecting curriculum materials.

Deborah Fallin, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association, which is defending Mr. Wilder, said no decision had been made on whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Vol. 17, Issue 42, Page 6

Published in Print: July 8, 1998, as Teachers Fired Over Classroom Practices Lose Appeals
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