Appellate court says school district's interests outweigh teacher's First Amendment rights over blog posts

WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court ruled last week thata Washington teacher’s blog posts, which criticized the district and otherteachers, were not protected by the First Amendment and that her subsequentdemotion was legal.

In its June 16 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled TaraRicherson’s blog entries — which “included several highlypersonal and vituperative comments about her employers, union representatives,and fellow teachers” — disrupted her relationship with coworkers andinterfered with her responsibilities as a mentor for teachers.

“Common sense indicates that few teachers would expect that theycould enter into a confidential and trusting relationship with Richerson afterreading her blog,” the court wrote in its opinion.

The appeals court also agreed with a lower court’s ruling that schoolofficial’s “legitimate administrative interests … outweighedRicherson’s First Amendment interests.” According to the ruling,several school employees — including a teacher who Richerson was assignedto mentor — complained to the district about the blog. Though Richersonnever identified anyone by name in her posts, some employees refused to workwith her.

When Richerson launched her blog in 2004, she was working for the CentralKitsap School District in Silverdale, Wash., as a curriculum specialist. AfterJeanne Beckon, the district’s director of human resources, discovered herblog, she demoted Richerson to a classroom teaching position.

Richerson sued Beckon, not the district, claiming her demotion caused herfinancial loss, disrupted her career path and inflicted emotionaldistress.

Terry Venneberg, who represented Richerson, said the recent decision isconcerning for public school employees’ rights to free speech.

“We didn’t think that the defense had shown that Ms.Richerson’s comments were disruptive at all to her workplace,”

Venneberg said. “We thought it was inconsistent with previous cases thathad been handed down by the 9th Circuit regarding First Amendment rights ofpublic employees, particularly teachers.”

The court cited the Supreme Court’s ruling in Pickering v. Boardof Education, in which the high court held that school officials violate theFirst Amendment when they discipline a school teacher for voicing concern — as a citizen — over issues of public importance.

But Venneberg argued the court did not properly apply the Pickering

balancing test. He noted in the lawsuit that Richerson’s blog wasmaintained anonymously and she only discussed specific events after they becamepublic knowledge. Her blog posts often concerned “the quality ofeducational opportunities being afforded to students” in thedistrict.

The appeals court’s opinion is unpublished, which means it does notto set any controlling precedent for future cases on similar legal issues. ButVenneberg said it is still a troubling ruling.

“Certainly any teachers or school employees who are aware of itwould, in our view, be chilled in their exercise of free speech,” he said.”There will always be a concern that comments made in either Internetblogs or other types of communication could come back to hauntthem.”

Beckon’s attorney Diana Blakney said she was pleased with the ruling.Blakney added she thinks the appeals court was correct in ruling thedistrict’s interests were greater than Richerson’s First Amendmentrights.

Venneberg said his client is still considering requesting an en bancreview, a hearing that is held before the entire appellate court instead of apanel of judges.