ACLU-TN Defends Williamson County Educators Against School Board Retaliation
School Staff Harassed For Exercising Free Speech Rights
NASHVILLE – The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee today sent a letter to the Williamson County School Board demanding that it cease retaliation against school staff for engaging in free speech protected under the First Amendment. Members of the school board reportedly threatened disciplinary action against the educators, including discharge, for their participation in a private meeting at which school board policies were discussed.
“The educators who attended this private meeting have a constitutional right to speak out on matters of public concern such as school board elections—and they did not give up this right when they chose to dedicate their lives to public service,” said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU-TN legal director. “The First Amendment clearly protects the right of these educators to discuss, and even criticize, the elected school board on their own time. If the school board does not immediately end its retaliatory attempts to chill free speech, we will have no choice but to take further action.”
The letter was sent on behalf of six Hillsboro School teachers and administrators who were part of a group that met in September 2014 to discuss the school board, its actions and statements, and the then recent school board election campaign. The meeting took place after school hours, off of school grounds, and no public funds were expended for the meeting. Recently, an audio recording of the gathering, which had been altered to delete any references that it was held off campus, was circulated to the media, leading to false allegations that the meeting was mandatory and took place on school grounds during school hours.
Rather than conduct an investigation through the standard administrative process to confirm that the meeting took place at an appropriate time and location, school board members reportedly threatened the educators with disciplinary action, including discharge. One school board member attempted to conduct a private investigation, going to the school and demanding to speak with administrators. The school board also ordered that school superintendent, Dr. Mike Looney, and the Human Resources office not participate in any inquiry, and instead engaged a private law firm to investigate the meeting and its participants, at public expense. The law firm requested interviews with four of the educators and subjected two of them to interrogations that lasted nearly four hours and included irrelevant, invasive personal questions. They were also asked to name all of those present at the meetings and to identify who said what.
According to the letter, “Private citizens, even if public employees by day, are entitled to criticize their elected officials and question their motivations or policies…Our clients plainly exercised their right to speak on matters of public concern. For their efforts, they have been, and continue to be, subjected to official acts by the School Board in retaliation…Because ‘there is no justification for harassing people for exercising their constitutional rights,’ the effect of harassing conduct need not be great ‘to be actionable.’”
“As we teach in our civics classes, the right to free speech and our ability to criticize public officials is crucial to a healthy democracy,” said ACLU-TN executive director Hedy Weinberg. “We hope that the school board swiftly recognizes that these educators, many of whom are also parents of children in the school system, cannot be subjected to a politically-motivated witch hunt for simply exercising their protected right to free speech.”
The letter demands that the school board immediately “call off any further investigation into the protected speech of its employees; cease the investigation into irrelevant matters and the nature and character of the protected speech; and retract and condemn all threats by individual Board members calling for the discipline or discharge of employees for speaking on matters of public concern.”
ACLU-TN has launched a public petition to urge the Williamson County school board to stop chilling educators’ free speech. The petition can be viewed at: http://bit.ly/1EvLY01.
A copy of the letter sent today is available here.
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