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School Secretary’s Comments to Press Protected, Court Says

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A Texas school district violated a school secretary’s right to free speech when it fired her for talking to the press about a principal’s resignation, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Charlene Salge was discussing a matter of public concern when she talked to a newspaper reporter about why her boss had quit his job as the principal of the lone public high school in Edna, Texas, according to a ruling late last month by the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

And her constitutional right to speak about such matters outweighed any disruption her remarks may have caused the 1,500-student district, the court held.

Edna High School Principal Kenneth Airheart resigned in 2002 after Superintendent Bob Wells criticized his performance and told him that his contract would not be extended.

Shortly afterward, Ms. Salge discussed the matter with a local reporter who called the school inquiring about staffing changes there. Mr. Wells later fired Ms. Salge after finding out that she was the source for the reporter’s article about Mr. Airheart’s departure, saying she had violated district policy by releasing confidential information.

Ms. Salge, who had been with the district for 33 years, sued in U.S. District Court in Victoria, Texas, claiming that the district had retaliated against her for exercising her First Amendment right to free speech. The district court found in her favor in June 2004, and on May 27, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit court unanimously affirmed that ruling.

A key question was whether Ms. Salge’s speech involved a matter of public interest, rather than one of only personal concern. Another was whether her First Amendment interest in discussing that issue outweighed her employer’s interest in efficiently providing public services.

“[A]dministration of Edna High School was an item of considerable interest in that small community,” and Ms. Salge’s views on the topic were “of greater importance because of her familiarity with the issues faced by the school district,” the appeals court held.

For those and other reasons, the panel rejected the district’s contention that Ms. Salge “was merely engaged in gossip about personnel matters with a friend rather than responding to an invitation to speak from a reporter.”

The appeals court also concluded that Ms. Salge had not actually disclosed confidential information. Mr. Airheart “had effectively waived any confidentiality rights” by discussing why he was leaving in a meeting with about 40 school staff members that he convened after receiving his negative job evaluation from Mr. Wells, the panel’s opinion said.

Moreover, the panel said, Superintendent Wells did not do enough to discern the details of Ms. Salge’s conversation with the reporter.

“[B]efore an employer may justifiably discharge an employee on a belief that that employee’s speech has caused or will cause significant disruption to the workplace, the employer must undertake a reasonable investigation of the facts to determine what the employee actually said,” the appellate judges held.

Mr. Wells said last week that the district had decided not to pursue further appeals, and would pay damages of about $158,000 to Ms. Salge, who no longer works for the district.

Vol. 24, Issue 41, Page 10

Published in Print: June 22, 2005, as School Secretary’s Comments to Press Protected, Court Says

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