Supreme Court refuses to hear teacher speech case

The U.S. Supreme Court refused on Oct. 5 to hear the appeal of a North Carolina high school drama teacher who was involuntarily transferred from her job after community members complained about a play performed by her advanced acting class.

The Court’s ruling lets stand a decision by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal which said that school officials had not acted improperly in transferring Margaret Boring to a nearby junior high school. Citing the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood decision, the appellate court said that Boring, an award-winning, veteran drama teacher, enjoyed no First Amendment protection when it came to selecting, producing and directing a school play with controversial content. The majority found that each and every curricular decision is “by definition a legitimate pedagogical concern” over which school officials have control.

The play, “Independence,” centered on the relationships within a dysfunctional, single-parent family. Prior to performing the play in regional competition, where it won 17 of 21 awards, Boring had informed school officials of her selection.

This is a dreadful decision for journalism advisers and other high school faculty. While it’s not the first case extending Hazelwood to cover the speech of teachers, it is the clearest and most frightening example to date of the dangers of such a standard. The decision, which directly effects teachers in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia, essentially guts the notion that public high school teachers have any sort of constitutionally-based academic freedom rights within their classrooms. While we say that we want the best and the brightest teaching our kids, the sad fact is that the best and brightest will never go near a classroom once they read this court decision.

And a note to our college readers: this case again makes clear that Hazelwood affects the free speech rights of students *and* teachers. At the same time, a censorship case involving Kentucky State University, now before the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, would extend Hazelwood to public colleges and universities. A chilling combination to say the least.

Case: Boring v. Buncombe, 136 F.3d 364 (4th Cir. 1998)(en banc), cert. denied, 1998 WL 248737 (10/5/98).