Social-Media Woes for School Districts

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn December 16, 2011In: Public Sector, Social Media in the Workplace

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Teachers' use of social media continues to make headlines. NPR reported on a recent incident in New Jersey, involving Union High School teacher, Viki Knox. Knox was suspended in response to outrage surrounding comments she'd posted on her Facebook page.

It started with her post that the school's gay-history exhibit should be removed. She later urged her friends to pray and called homosexuality a "perverted sin," according to NPR. After parents complained about the comments, the school district began an investigation. Later, Knox's supporters and those demanding her resignation faced off in a protest at a school-board meeting.

As I've previously explained, a three-step test is used to determine whether a public employer, including school districts, may discipline an employee due to the employee's speech. First, the court will ask whether the employee was speaking as a citizen or as an employee. Here, that question could be answered either way. Assuming the exhibit was not related to Knox's job duties, it is reasonable to conclude that her Facebook comment was made in her capacity as a citizen, in which case the speech would be protected in the first stage of the analysis.

In the second stage, the court asks whether the speech was on a matter of public concern. Let's again assume that Knox's comment meets the test. If that's the case, the court turns to the final stage of its analysis and asks whether the employer's interest in maintaing an efficient and effective workplace outweighs the employee's interest in free speech.

Here's where Knox's claim would likely fail. The school district would be able to show both actual disruption and the potential for disruption. The protests and complaints received by parents shows that the employee's speech was disruptive to the district's operations.

The school district also would be able to show that there was a potential disruption in the form of loss of trust and respect by parents and students. To the extent that Knox's comments about the "sinful" nature of homosexuality contradicts the district's stated values of tolerance and diversity and that contradiction potentially could result in the inability of Knox to effectively connect with students and parents, the district would be able to discipline her for her speech without violating the free speech protections of the First Amendment.

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