Supreme Indignity

When English teacher Cissy Lacks lost her job, she went to the nation's highest court to try to get it back.

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Cissy Lacks never imagined her teaching career ending like this. With a lucrative book deal and a nice retirement part, maybe. But not with a four-year court battle to win back a job she lost for letting students use profanity in their classwork.

Even now, Lacks can't quite believe it. The case, which came to an abrupt conclusion in May when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Lacks' arguments, transformed the high school English teacher into a high-profile crusader for academic freedom. But she still looks back on her once-quiet life in the classroom and wonders how it all happened.

"There was a sort of mythology built up around me," says Lacks, a 22-year teaching veteran. "I'm really not a rebel. I'd hear people say how I was pushing the envelope, and I'd think, My goodness! Who are they talking about?"

For Lacks, the quiet life ended on January 11, 1995, when officials at Berkeley Senior High in the Ferguson-Florissant school district near St. Louis confiscated videotapes and a grade book from her classroom after she'd gone home for the day. The tapes showed members of her 11th grade English class performing plays they had written three months earlier. Like many of Lacks' assignments, the plays dealt with what one student described as "our harsh reality." After viewing the tapes, which were filled with profanity and sexual themes, school administrators immediately suspended Lacks. Two months later, they fired her.

Lacks fought back in federal court, arguing that the 10,000-student district had violated her First Amendment rights and failed to give her adequate notice that her teaching methods were unacceptable. In 1996, a U.S. district judge ruled in her favor, saying she had not willfully violated school policy. The judge ordered the school system to reinstate Lacks, and three months later a federal jury awarded her $750,000.

The victory was short-lived, however. In 1998, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the monetary judgment and cleared the school district of any obligation to reinstate Lacks. Explaining the court's decision, Chief Judge Richard Arnold cited the importance of maintaining a civil atmosphere in the classroom. The school board, he wrote, had a legitimate academic interest in prohibiting the use of profanity.

Stunned by the decision, Lacks asked for a rehearing, but the circuit court denied her petition last fall. In May, the Supreme Court declined to hear her appeal. "I could not believe the Supreme Court would allow this to stand," she says. "I was extraordinarily disappointed. In a just world, this never should have happened."

These days, Lacks lives off a partial pension--she was fired just three years before qualifying for full benefits--and what she makes as a representative for a cosmetics company. She has written a book about her experience and speaks about education and her case when asked.

In her talks to teachers, Lacks reminds them that she was fired for doing what she had always done in her classroom. She had no idea she was violating district rules. "I don't want to scare teachers," she says, "but on the other hand, I think we have something to be scared about."

She isn't the only one who thinks so. A coalition of three organizations--the National Education Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the PEN American Center, a writers' association that defends freedom of expression--helped bankroll Lacks' court fight. And in 1996, actor Paul Newman presented her with a PEN First Amendment award and a check for $25,000.

"You can beat people down," Lacks says. "But there were people who didn't want that to happen to me. I don't have to hang my head. I don't have to behave like a beaten dog because I'm not."

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 78

Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as Supreme Indignity
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