High Court Turns Down Mo. Teacher's Appeal Over Firing
The U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to hear the appeal of Cecilia "Cissy" Lacks, the Missouri teacher fired for allowing her students to use profanity in their creative-writing assignments.
The high court's March 8 action was the end of the legal line for Ms. Lacks, a tenured teacher who was fired in 1995. The Ferguson-Florissant school district had said she failed to enforce the student-discipline code's prohibition against profane language.
Ms. Lacks had argued that she was never put on notice that her unconventional teaching methods were unacceptable to the 10,000-student district in suburban St. Louis. She also alleged that she was a victim of racial discrimination. She is white, and the administrators who reviewed her employment were black.
Her legal battle was backed by a coalition that included the National Education Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the PEN American Center, a New York City-based writers' association that defends freedom of expression. The coalition told the high court there was considerable confusion in federal law regarding the rights of public school teachers to use controversial materials and methods in the classroom.
"This case is important to teachers throughout the country," said a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the coalition in support of Ms. Lacks. "Teachers and administrators in many jurisdictions around the country are unclear about the rules governing controversial materials and about the latitude that students and teachers have in the give-and-take of classroom discussion."
Ms. Lacks was a 22-year veteran in the district when she allowed her Berkeley High School students to use street language in short plays they wrote for a class assignment.
The plays dealt with sex, teenage pregnancy, gangs, and drugs and included obscenities, street jargon, and "black dialect."
Ms. Lacks and others defended the teaching technique as "student centered" and designed to unleash students' creativity. But administrators charged Ms. Lacks with violating school board policy. They said she had failed to enforce the student discipline code, which prohibited profane language at school. The board contended this included class assignments. ("Expletives Deleted," June 21, 1995.)
After the school board dismissed Ms. Lacks, she sued under state law and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and was awarded $750,000 by a federal jury.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit overturned the verdict last year and upheld Ms. Lacks' dismissal. The court said the school board had a legitimate academic interest in prohibiting the use of profanity by students.
In their Supreme Court appeal in Lacks v. Ferguson-Florissant Reorganized School District (Case No. 98-983), lawyers for Ms. Lacks stressed that the teacher did not have clear notice that her teaching methods violated board policy.
"The jury specifically found that Lacks did not have reasonable notice that allowing students to use profanity in their creative writing was prohibited," the appeal said.
In court papers, the district defended its dismissal of Ms. Lacks.
The school board "found that [Ms. Lacks] committed a willful and persistent violation of board policy by permitting, if not promoting, the conduct depicted in [the plays]," the district said.
In separate action last week, the high court let stand a federal appeals court ruling that required an Illinois district to pay for the nursing services for a student whose congenital defects require dependence on a ventilator.
The case was similar to the one the Supreme Court decided earlier this month in Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Garret F. In that 7-2 ruling, the court said federal special education law requires districts to pay for full-time nursing services required by students with disabilities to attend school.
In Morton Community Unit School District No. 709 v. J.M. (No. 98-764), both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit had ruled that the Illinois district must pay an estimated $20,000 a year for a nurse to attend full time to the student.
Vol. 18, Issue 27, Page 34Published in Print: March 17, 1999, as High Court Turns Down Mo. Teacher's Appeal Over Firing