The Northern District Court of Illinois found that Rich Township High School District 227 did not violate the free speech rights of former guidance counselor and girls’ basketball coach Bryan Craig when it dismissed him based on his self-published book “It’s Her Fault.” Craig wrote and published the book he described as a “self-help book” about relationships between men and women. But the Board of Education had concerns about the book and, after an investigation, dismissed Craig. Craig sued the district, arguing the dismissal violated his freedom of speech as well as due process rights.
To determine whether Craig had stated a First Amendment claim, the court first asked whether Craig’s speech was constitutionally protected. Where a government employee is speaking as a citizen, his speech is protected if it addresses a matter of public concern and his interest in commenting on matters of public concern outweighs the interest of the government employer in promoting efficient performance of its public services. That the speech is on a matter of public interest or public importance is not sufficient, neither is making the speech available to the public. Instead, the speech must address a subject of legitimate news interest, of general interest, value, and concern to the public at the time of publication.
In addition to discussions of the power balance between men and women in relationships, Craig’s book included sections describing his after-hours work at a strip club, urging women to be submissive, and encouraging men to cheat. He also cited his credentials as a high school girls’ basketball coach and guidance counselor to lend validity to his book. The court found that the book was “actually little more than a lurid account of plaintiff’s own sexual preferences and exploits,” and therefore not a matter of public concern. The court further found that “there is no question that the speech is detrimental to the mission and functions of the employer, including policies regarding discrimination based on gender or sex.” Because Craig’s speech was not constitutionally protected, his dismissal did not violate the First Amendment.
Craig also brought a due process claim, alleging the district deprived him of his liberty interest in pursuing his profession and maintaining his professional reputation. The court found that he could not prevail on the claim because he did not allege that the district publicly disclosed stigmatizing information that caused him to suffer a tangible loss of other employment opportunities.
As you know, public school students and teachers do not shed their first amendment rights at the school house gate, but neither are those rights absolute. School districts must use caution when considering discipline for student or teacher speech; courts will conduct a fact-intensive inquiry to determine how the speech and district response fit within the extensive case law precedent.