Personal gripe or public concern: when does an employee’s private blog cross the line?

August 14, 2014

Censor internet conceptWhether it is playing the role of the provocateur to spark public commentary on the latest social issues, or giving voice to private musings about a topic of personal interest, blogging has become a popular forum for self-expression and public debate.

But the lure of fingertip, 24-hour access to a public forum can prove problematic, especially when employees’ exercise of First Amendment rights touch on concerns in their own workplace.

Although courts have long recognized the freedom of public employees to engage in public debate as a private citizen, a Pennsylvania high school teacher learned first-hand that this freedom does not extend to all speech.

In Munroe v. Central Bucks School District, No. 12-3546, 2014 WL 3700325 (E.D. Pa. July 25, 2014), an English teacher maintained a private blog titled “Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?”

The teacher blogged under her first name and last initial, and did not reveal where she worked or lived. The blog allegedly had no more than nine subscribers, including the teacher and her husband.  In addition to covering personal matters such as her food and film preferences, the blog also contained unflattering commentary on her students and coworkers.

On her blog the teacher frequently complained about the rudeness and lack of motivation of her students, whom she referred to as “jerk,” rat-like,” “dunderhead,” and “whiny.”

She also commented that the parents were “breeding a disgusting brood of insolent, unappreciative, selfish brats.”

The school district suspended and eventually terminated the teacher after the content of her blog became the subject of national news reports and sparked a firestorm of negative publicity.

The district contended the blog posts eroded the necessary trust and respect between the teacher and her students, and caused serious disruption to office operations because the statements in the blog attracted considerable negative attention from both parents and the public at large.

The teacher filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania,  contending the school district harassed and eventually terminated her employment based on her expression of constitutionally protected views under the First Amendment.

In support of her claims of harassment, the teacher cited her continued receipt of negative evaluations, the denial of her transfer request, and the requirement that she complete detailed and exhaustive lessons plans.

After determining that personal issues dominated the blog, Judge Cynthia M. Rufe granted summary judgment to the school district.

She noted that unlike the plaintiffs in the Pickering and Monsanto cases, who spoke only to address matters of public concern and avoided the use of personal or inflammatory invective, the plaintiff in the instant matter mostly focused on negative interactions between herself and her students.

Pickering v. Board of Education, No. 510, 88 S. Ct. 1731 (U.S. June 3, 1968); Monsanto v. Quinn, No. 81-1434, 674 F.2d 990 (3d Cir. Mar. 11, 1982).

Judge Rufe observed that the teacher’s blog, including an entry titled: “Things From This Day That Bothered Me,” was distinguishable in tone and content from speech that has enjoyed constitutional protection.  In particular, the court found the teacher’s blog contained “gratuitously demeaning and insulting language inextricably intertwined with her occasional discussions of public issues.”

The judge also said the disruptive nature of the teacher’s speech diminished any legitimate interest in its expression, noting the statements attracted generated negative attention, from concerned parents and from the public at large.

Based on these findings, the court found her expression unprotected, reasoning that since the teacher’s comments did not merit protection under the Pickering balancing test, it was unnecessary to reach the question of whether her statements were a direct cause of her termination.