Teacher who criticized Neb. school district fights reprimand

NEBRASKA — An English teacher at Seward High Schoolis suing the school district and superintendent for violatinghis First Amendment rights after they reprimanded him and threatenedhim with dismissal for criticizing the school.

Administrators accused Bill Sloup, a teacher in Seward PublicSchools for 19 years, of insubordination in May after he criticizedthe school’s personnel policy at a community prayer meeting.

In the lawsuit, Sloup is asking that he be able to speak outabout issues of public concern, be able to pray with others withoutfear of reproof and that the school district remove two lettersof reprimand from his personnel file.

"I’m doing it for my profession. I want teachers who arein the frontlines of education to have input into the decisionsthat are being made. I want to have teachers whose job it is toteach the basic liberties of this nation to have them availableto them in their own workplace," Sloup said.

Sloup’s trouble began in March when the school district sentout letters indicating that not all teachers’ contracts wouldbe renewed. Sloup had a meeting with school board president MikeHecker to voice his concern over the district’s "Reductionin Force" measure, bypassing his school’s administrationand Superintendent Marshall Adams.

Adams sent a written reprimand to Sloup for breaking the chain-of-command,saying Sloup’s comments to Hecker were "very unprofessionaland inappropriate."

On May 3, Sloup attended a prayer meeting with other SewardHigh School teachers, where he told the group that Satan was workingthrough the Seward Public Schools administration.

His comments prompted another letter from Adams and the highschool administration. Sloup then filed a grievance to the schoolboard requesting that the letters be removed from his personnelfile.

"This particular issue is the right of a public employeeto exercise his First Amendment right on issues of public concernthat affect a broad spectrum of society that include not onlythe teachers but the educational quality that is given to thestudents of the community," said Mathew Staver, the attorneyfor the Liberty Council, the group representing Sloup.

In a meeting that was closed despite Sloup’s request that itbe open, the school board rejected his request to remove the letters.

"They’re really trying to stop the public from hearingany discussion regarding this procedure," Staver said.

When Sloup argued that the meeting should have been open, boardmembers cited the state open-meetings law section that allowsa closed session when discussing "the evaluation of the jobperformance of a person when necessary to prevent needless injuryto the reputation of a person and if such person has not requesteda public meeting."

The board stated that because not all parties involved in thegrievance procedure agreed to a public hearing, they voted tokeep it closed.

Also at the meeting, the board rejected Sloup’s assertion thathis transfer to an alternative school was a demotion. The boardstood by the Seward High School administration’s decision to moveSloup, citing a statue that allows a teacher to be assigned "dutiesfor which he or she is qualified by reason of certification, endorsement,or college preparation."

Sloup decided to take his issue to the courts because, "thereare many problems in education right now and open discussion andopen dialogue are the best ways to address these problems,"he said.

Sloup is staying in the district at his new position at thealternative school. He is looking forward to working in the newenvironment, he said.

Staver has filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, askingthe court to set an expedited hearing. The hearing should be heldin upcoming months.