Schools have been dealing with the social-media blues, basically, since Facebook was merely a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. See Social-Media Woes for School Districts and More Social-Media Woes for School Districts. The balancing act is a tricky one. On one hand, you have the First Amendment rights of teachers to live a life outside of the classroom and to post about it on their blogs and social-networking site. On the other hand are the school’s rights as an employer to accomplish its primary mission–to educate students–and to manage its operations effectively.
There are plenty of news stories about teachers who are disciplined or terminated due to information posted online. And, unlike most areas of the law involving social-media issues, there are several reported opinions on this question. More often than note, the termination decision is upheld, based on the court’s finding that the teacher’s First Amendment rights were outweighed by the school’s interest in maintaining peace and order.
Occasionally, though, a decision comes down the other way, finding that the teacher was unlawfully terminated. One such case involved a first-grade teacher from Paterson, New Jersey. We first reported on this story in November 2011, when parents complained that Jennifer O’Brien had referred to her students as “future criminals” and analogized her job to being a “warden” in posts on her Facebook page.
At the administrative level, the administrative law judge recommended that O’Brien be terminated for her Facebook posts. The ALJ determined that the school district’s need to operate efficiently trumped Ms. O’Brien’s free-speech rights because “thoughtless words can destroy the partnership between home and school that is essential to the mission of the schools.”
O’Brien appealed the ALJ’s decision to the acting commission of education. When the commission agreed with the ALJ, O’Brien appealed to the New Jersey courts. Last week, the appeals court issued its ruling, upholding the termination. In short, the court found that her comments were, indeed, “conduct unbecoming a tenured teacher,” which is any conduct that has a “tendency to destroy public respect for government employees and confidence in the operation of public services.”
Mark another line in the Win column for employers.
The State of the Social-Media Mess in Public Schools
Students, Teachers, and Social Media
No 1st Am. Protection for Teacher’s Facebook Posts
Court Denies Reinstatement to Teacher Fired for Facebook Posts
N.Y. Teacher’s Firing Overturned Despite Facebook Wish that Students Drown
Blogging Teacher Returns to Work After Suspension for Posting About Students