Natalie Munroe was a high school English teacher in the Central Bucks School District in Pennsylvania. From 2006 to 2010, all of her performance evaluations deemed her performance "satisfactory." In 2009, Munroe began a personal blog titled, Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket? She blogged as "Natalie M" and did not state where she worked or lived. She published 84 blog posts between 2009 and 2010, mostly writing about personal matters, including food and film interests, her children, and her yoga classes.
However, on a number of occasions, Munroe wrote about her students and co-workers. Without using names or specific dates, she complained about her students' rudeness and lack of motivation, referring to them as "jerk," "rat-like," "dunderhead," "whiny, simpering grade-grubber with an unrealistically high perception of own ability level," and "frightfully dim." She wrote that parents were "breeding a disgusting brood of insolent, unappreciative, selfish brats." She referred to a co-worker by first name and with a vulgar epithet. She also complained about the school administration, observing that the administration harassed a colleague until he resigned because they felt he was an ineffective teacher.
The school administration learned of the blog in February 2011, when a local newspaper reporter asked questions regarding the blog and its contents, and also sought comment on the fact that students have been circulating the blog through social media. The next day, Munroe's principal summoned her to a meeting, confronted her about the blog, and placed her on immediate, unpaid suspension. At the end of that year and the following year, Munroe received negative evaluations and denied her request to transfer to another school within the district. Her employment was terminated at the end of the 2011-2012 school year.
Munroe sued the District for unlawful retaliation based on her expression of constitutionally protected views under the First Amendment, for which she would have had to demonstrate that (1) the speech in question was constitutionally protected; and (2) the exercise of that protected speech was a substantial factor in the alleged retaliation. A public employee's speech is protected when he or she speaks as a private citizen upon a matter of public concern, and the employee's interest in exercising his or her First Amendment rights is greater than the employer's interest in the efficient operation of the public agency.
The trial court found that within certain blog posts are occasional passages that touch upon broad issues of academic integrity, the value of honor, and students' lack of effort, which are matters of political and social concern. However, Munroe addressed issues of public concern to discuss other, personal issues. Instead of larger discussions of educational reform or school policies, Munroe mostly complained about her students' failure to live up to expectations and focused on negative interactions.
The court also found that the language Munroe used to describe students and co-workers soured her relationship with the school administration, and had the potential to do so even without the media attention. The court noted that there was no regulation forbidding teachers from blogging, but the conduct was still unprofessional and disruptive, and school administrators were within their rights to conclude that the posts would erode necessary trust and respect between Munroe and her students. Finally, Munroe's statements attracted considerable negative attention to the school, disrupting its operations.
The court concluded that Munroe's was sufficiently disruptive in both effect and tone that her interests did not outweigh the Districts and her speech was not constitutionally protected. Thus, the District did not violate Munroe's constitutional right to free expression. Munroe is currently appealing to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
This opinion was issued by a federal trial court in Pennsylvania, and California courts would not be required to follow it as precedent. However, the case provides another example in the expanding area of how social and internet media should be treated by public employers and districts. Districts should exercise caution when determining whether to discipline an employee based on blog or social media posts.
Munroe v. Central Bucks School District (E.D.Penn. 2014) __ F.Supp. __ [2014 WL 3700325].