Law Update

Teacher Allegedly Dismissed for Book Choices to Get Trial

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A decision by a federal appeals court this month allows an Ohio teacher to proceed with her lawsuit claiming she lost her job because of certain books she chose to assign to her students.

Shelley Evans-Marshall, an English teacher at Tippecanoe High School, in Tipp City, Ohio, contends that her employment contract was not renewed in 2002 because the school principal and the superintendent of the 2,600-student Tipp City district were retaliating for her exercise of her free-speech rights under the First Amendment.

She said in court papers that she had received outstanding evaluations from Principal Charles W. Wray until a public protest in the fall of 2001 against her assignments for optional reading, which she maintains were all district-approved books, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, and Siddhartha.

After about 500 people signed a petition directed against her calling for “decency in education,” the principal gave Ms. Evans-Marshall her first negative evaluation and directed her to discuss with her department head before using materials with “graphic violence, sexual themes, profanity, suicide, drugs, and alcohol,” according to court papers.

Later that school year, after she had shown her students a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” that was rated PG-13—a rating that she said was permissible under district policy—she received another poor evaluation and the school board voted not to renew her contract.

School officials said in court papers that the nonrenewal was unrelated to the controversy.

On Nov. 1, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, voted 3-0, with one judge dissenting in part, to allow Ms. Evans-Marshall’s lawsuit proceed to trial.

“Under a liberal reading of the complaint, Evans-Marshall was terminated due to a public outcry engendered by the assignment of protected material that had been approved by the board,” U.S. Circuit Judge R. Guy Cole Jr. wrote in the majority opinion. He said the school board’s approval of the teacher’s “termination is an injury that would chill First Amendment expression.”

In a partial dissent, Judge D. J. Zatkoff argued that district Superintendent John T. Zigler and Mr. Wray were entitled to immunity from personal liability in the suit.

Vol. 25, Issue 12, Page 15

Published in Print: November 16, 2005, as Teacher Allegedly Dismissed for Book Choices to Get Trial
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