U.S. Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Teacher Free Speech Case

The U.S. Supreme Court refused on March 5 to hear the appeal of a Missouri high school teacher fired for letting her students use profanity in class while performing plays they had written.

The Court’s ruling lets stand a decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissing the teacher’s claim that her firing violated the First Amendment.

Cecilia Lacks taught at Berkley Senior High School in Berkley, Mo., just outside St. Louis. In 1994, she assigned her English class students to write short plays that they would perform in class and videotape.

The plays contained considerable profanity. After some students complained and school officials watched the tape, Lacks was charged with violating a school district policy that required teachers to enforce a ban on student use of profanity. She was subsequently fired.

Lacks sued claiming, among other things, that the firing violated her free speech rights because she wasn’t notified that the anti-profanity rule applied to creative expression in class.

A federal district court jury awarded Lacks $500,000 on her free speech claim, but the Court of Appeals threw out the award.

“A school district does not violate the First Amendment when it disciplines a teacher for allowing students to use profanity repetitiously and egregiously in their written work,” the appeals court ruled.

Case: Lacks v. Ferguson-Florissant Reorganized School District, 98-983.