Free Speech Rights of Teachers

December 7th, 2014

A Houston ISD teacher made a number of inflammatory comments on a public-access television show.

Box, who has taught in HISD since July 2013 and previously taught in Spring Branch ISD, has been a regular guest on the conservative political talk show, “Tommy’s Garage,” broadcast on cable at midnight. In online clips, she can be seen saying, “I am so sick of the bacon-haters coming here” and “Can’t Ebola just take one for the team and take out Obama?” She also used profanity referring to Muslims.

Could the teacher has been disciplined for her comments? The Houston Chronicle quoted me as saying that Free Speech rights are usually protected, but to the extent her comments interfere with her ability to do her job, discipline would not be unlawful retaliation.

While government employees are guaranteed First Amendment free-speech rights, job protection is not absolute if their expression significantly interferes with their performance at work, according to professors Josh Blackman at South Texas College of Law and Peter Linzer at the University of Houston Law Center.

“You’ve got a right to be an idiot,” Linzer said. But he pointed to a 2006 Supreme Court decision that discussed some limits, saying public employees “must face only those speech restrictions that are necessary for their employers to operate efficiently and effectively.”

Blackman added that the controversy surrounding Box’s comments could have given the school district a legitimate reason to discipline Box.

“Teachers are free to speak about politics and other things outside of the classroom,” Blackman said, “but perhaps taking it to this level renders it problematic.”

I suspect the comments she made would interfere with her job duties. Alas, she resigned with a settlement, so there’s no need to address the First Amendment issue.