Fired after speaking to local newspaper, N.Y. music teacher’s First Amendment case will have a second act

A reporter for the Long Island daily, Newsday, figured she had a colorful human-interest story: Elementary-school music teacher falls and breaks her ankle backstage on opening night of the school musical — but calls off the ambulance so the sirens won’t disrupt the show. What a trouper!

But according to teacher Rebecca Posteraro, that story was curtains for her teaching career at Bellerose Avenue Elementary School.

Posteraro says her principal reprimanded her for giving an interview to the news media, and threatened disciplinary action if it happened again. After receiving only positive evaluations, Posteraro says, her reviews turned sour. Three months after the interview, she says, she was stripped of her teaching assignments without explanation. The school, she says, made statements to parents hinting, falsely, at some undisclosed wrongdoing as the real reason for her removal.

Posteraro filed suit, alleging (among other claims) a violation of her First Amendment rights. In a recent ruling, a U.S. district judge agreed that, if the teacher’s version of the facts proves true, she has a viable constitutional claim.

In an Aug. 10 opinion, U.S. District Judge Joanna Seybert rejected the school district’s motion to dismiss Posteraro’s First Amendment claim.

While public employees have limited free-expression rights when speaking in the course of their official duties, Judge Seybert found that the Newsday interview was outside the scope of Posteraro’s employment. Since she was speaking as a private citizen and not a school employee, the school’s authority to control her speech — or punish her for what she said — was strictly limited by the First Amendment.

Judge Seybert’s view — that Posteraro was speaking as a private citizen because giving media interviews was outside the scope of her teaching duties — is a sensible one. It’s consistent with the Supreme Court’s pronouncement in the landmark Pickering case that a teacher writing a letter-to-the editor complaining about school district budget priorities was protected by the First Amendment, even though his letter was informed by his inside knowledge as a school employee.

In a somewhat analogous case, the Idaho Supreme Court agreed last year that an Idaho State University professor was speaking as a private citizen, not a public employee, when writing op-ed columns critical of his college’s administration. (Nevertheless, the court dismissed professor Habib Sadid’s retaliation claim, because he failed to show he suffered any tangible loss connected with his administration’s displeasure over the articles.)

The Posteraro case is at a preliminary stage, and the school district still will have an opportunity to seek dismissal if, as the evidence develops, there is no proof of a causal link between her non-renewal at Bellerose and her newspaper interview. But the takeaway is that schools cannot muzzle their employees from speaking on matters of public interest — even matters that are of no great public consequence.

The only advice for Posteraro that seems appropriate as her case proceeds: “Break a leg.”