Teaching Profession

High Court Declines to Hear Two School Free-Speech Cases

By Mark Walsh — October 16, 2002 4 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to hear two appeals involving the free-speech rights of educators involving school matters.

In acting on more than 1,900 appeals on Oct. 7, the first day of its new term, the court rejected a request from a Kentucky school district to uphold its right to fire a 5th grade teacher for giving lessons about industrial hemp. And it refused to hear the appeal of a Wisconsin elementary school principal who was demoted after she clashed with teachers in her school over a state grant application.

Actor Woody Harrelson and a local Kentucky sheriff.

Actor Woody Harrelson, whose classroom advocacy of industrial hemp generated a legal battle, plants hemp on his Kentucky farm in this 1996 protest. The local sheriff was on hand to arrest Mr. Harrelson.
—File photo by Michelle Patterson/Lexington Herald-Leader/AP

The Kentucky case has attracted attention because it involved a tenured teacher, Donna Cockrel, who invited actor Woody Harrelson to discuss industrial hemp with her class at Simpsonville Elementary School in the 5,200-student Shelby County district. Mr. Harrelson is an advocate of industrial hemp, which can be harvested for products such as paper and clothing. But Kentucky is among states that outlaw industrial hemp because it has small amounts of the narcotic ingredient found in its more powerful cousin, marijuana.

Ms. Cockrel had taught in the past about using industrial hemp as an alternative to wood pulp. In the spring of 1996, the Kentucky Hemp Growers Association, which lobbies to legalize industrial hemp, contacted her about a possible visit from Mr. Harrelson, who had taken up the cause.

The teacher informed her principal, Bruce Slate, of the impending visit and, she said later, he agreed to it. The principal subsequently maintained that he was told the presentation would be about agriculture, but that he did not realize it would be about hemp.

Mr. Harrelson visited the classroom with an entourage that included hemp growers and news reporters. Hemp seeds were passed around among the students, and Mr. Harrelson spoke about how he opposed marijuana use but supported the legalization of industrial hemp.

Parent Complaints

After the visit, some parents complained to the school board, saying the school was sending a mixed message about illegal drugs. The hemp presentation was on the same day as the school’s graduation for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, program, they noted. Ms. Cockrel was reprimanded, but the principal authorized a second classroom visit by Mr. Harrelson in early 1997.

In July 1997, Ms. Cockrel was fired by the district, which cited, among other alleged deficiencies, “dishonesty and deceptive conduct” regarding the timing of Mr. Harrelson’s visits. She sued in federal district court, claiming she was fired in retaliation for exercising her right of free speech.

A district judge sided with the district, but a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled unanimously last year that Ms. Cockrel’s case should go to trial.

The debate over industrial hemp was clearly a matter of public concern, the appeals court held. Applying a balancing test for public-employee speech in the workplace from the Supreme Court’s 1968 ruling in Pickering v. Board of Education, the appeals court said it was significant that the principal gave prior approval for the visits by Mr. Harrelson.

“We do not believe [district officials] can use the outcry within the school community protesting Cockrel’s speech ... as a shield for their decision to discharge her,” the appellate court said. The justices declined without comment last week to hear the district’s appeal in Shelby County School District v. Cockrel (Case No. 01-1548).

Duty of Loyalty

The Wisconsin case involved Principal Juana Vargas-Harrison, who argued in court papers that teachers at Knapp Elementary School in the 21,500-student Racine district disagreed with her proposal for a state grant for disadvantaged students.

Ms. Vargas-Harrison wanted to use the grant to finance an alternative reading program. But the teachers in her school wanted the grant money to continue to pay for several teaching positions. The district wanted to improve relations with the teachers’ union, and it urged the principal to attend a meeting to support the teacher-backed grant proposal. At the meeting, she distributed copies of her plan and said it was time to “stop the union running the school,” according to court papers.

Ms. Vargas-Harrison was demoted to assistant principal and later fired after refusing to take the job. She sued under the First Amendment, but lost in federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago. The three-judge panel ruled that because she held a policy-making position, she “owed her superiors a duty of loyalty.”

The Supreme Court declined without comment to hear her appeal in Vargas-Harrison v. Racine Unified School District (No. 01-1874).

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