When Is It Appropriate For Teachers To Call Students “Rat-Like” or “Dunderheads” in a Pseudonymous Blog? Never.
Natalie Munroe was a teacher in Central Bucks School District. She received good reviews over the years. In 2009, she started a blog, Where are we going, and why are we in this hand basket? (last post, April 2014) She blogged as “Natalie M” and “did not state where she worked or lived.” She published a total of 84 blog posts between 2009 and 2010, mostly writing about personal stuff. She did mention her students and co-workers on a few occasions:
Without using names or specific dates, Munroe complained about the rudeness and lack of motivation among her students, referring to them as “jerk,” “rat-like,” “dunderhead,” “whiny, simpering grade-grubber with an unrealistically high perception of own ability level” and “frightfully dim.” Plaintiff wrote that parents were “breeding a disgusting brood of insolent, unappreciative, selfish brats.” She referred to a co-worker by first name and with a vulgar epithet. Plaintiff also complained about the school administration, writing that she had observed the administration harass a colleague until he resigned because the administration felt that he was an ineffective teacher.
The administration learned of the blog in 2011 when a reporter started poking around. While the order does not specify how the administration figured out that she wrote the blog, the administration confronted her about it and placed her on immediate suspension. The administration also postured in the press. Munroe in turn made media appearances defending herself. Things went rapidly downhill in the employment relationship, and Munroe asked for a transfer which was denied. She was ultimately terminated.
The court examines her First Amendment claim through the familiar but vague Pickering framework. Under this framework, she has to show that she was terminated for speaking on a matter of “public concern” and that her interest in speaking (and the public’s interest in knowing) outweighs the employer’s interest in workplace efficiency. Here, the court says that her speech does not deal with a matter of public concern. While certain topics (and posts) do address issues of interest to the public, Munroe discusses these issues in the context of her personal thoughts.
Far from implicating larger discussions of educational reform, pedagogical methods, or specific school policies, Plaintiff mostly complained about the failure of her students to live up to her expectations, and focused on negative interactions between herself and her students.
The court cites to one passage where she says she had been entering grades, something she used to spent a lot of time and effort on when she first started teaching. Instead of talking about pedagogical issues, she says that “[f]or some kids, though, [her] scornful feelings reach such fever pitch that [she has] a hard time even putting ‘cooperative in class’ and have, sadly, had some kids for which none of the comments fit.” She then launches into a diatribe about the comments she wished she could write about her kids (e.g., “A complete and utter jerk in all ways. Though academically ok, your kid has no other redeeming qualities”; “Just as bad as his sibling. Don’t you know how to raise kids?”; “Liar and cheater”; and “Utterly loathsome in all imaginable ways.”). The court says that her blog was likely to generate a strong reaction because of its “opprobrious tone.” [Venkat's comment: good .. this means she's doing her job as a blogger!] Interestingly, the court also notes that while Munroe had no obligation to “mitigate the damage” in the wake of the media storm, her media approach did not take a conciliatory tone. The court also notes that the school district had no social media policy that prevented this type of blogging, but this did not matter because the district could fire an employee regardless of whether it had a policy.
Overall, the court says that the district was within its rights to conclude that Munroe’s blogging would “erode the necessary trust and respect” between her and her students. It grants summary judgment, dismissing her First Amendment claim.
One question that was not obvious from the court’s opinion is how the district determined that the blog was authored by Munroe. Perhaps the blog contained sufficient personal details to connect it to Munroe, but it’s also possible the School District dug around on its computers or otherwise looked for information regarding authorship of the blog. These cases always raise the lurking issue of how they would be affected by employee social media legislation. [Eric's comment: raising the question of whether a pseudonymous blog is "social media" for purposes of that legislation.]
Whether a public employee is properly terminated for her online speech is a topic that has been hashed out a bunch recently. Munroe had an uphill climb here, given that her blog is mostly personal in nature, but the blog does touch on some public issues. Also, it generated an attention firestorm, but perhaps that’s a result of a media feeding frenzy. Although Munroe did not argue that she intended the blog to be private, she did note that for the bulk of its life “the blog enjoyed no more than nine subscribed readers, two of whom were the plaintiff and her husband.” Not unexpectedly, this argument gets no traction with the court. [Venkat's comment: while this fact turned out to be legally irrelevant, as a fellow blogger, I found myself sympathizing.] One wonders how this case would have resolved if it involved a Facebook page where she made these comments, instead of a blog.
While I have not performed any sort of survey, my instinct is that for the most part, the claims of public employees who complain about being disciplined or terminated for social media posts have largely failed. This is unfortunate, because much of the attention to the post is often a result of the discovery that the person authored the post, along with the usual dose of digital rubber-necking. The media often play a part in stoking the fires. There is some short term interest, but people move on. The applicable legal framework does not require a public employer to show any lasting or even actual disruption, and courts often buy the public employer’s argument that people in positions of trust have to maintain their lily-white image at all times. Perhaps otherwise good employees are lost in the process? As Eric notes below, in many of these cases, the employees in question have good track records, but in a moment of weakness let slip comments that reflect poorly on their judgment.
Advice to any employee who intends to vent about their job online remains the same: save it for happy hour or the coffee klatsch!
Case citation: Munroe v. Central Bucks School Dist, No. 12-03546 (E.D. Pa. July 25, 2014) [pdf] h/t Courthouse News.
Read the school district’s press release, including this quote from School Board President Paul B. Faulkner: “The judge’s ruling has vindicated the caring and courageous actions of our administration, including those at the high school. We are a resilient district that has demonstrated our ability to move beyond this unfortunate and isolated incident.”
On a loosely related note: “Language School Blogger Fired for Writing About Homophones” (Gawker) (is this real?)
Eric’s Comments: To me, this case fits neatly with other cases where government employees expressed condescension towards the people they were supposedly serving and suggested that they made discretionary decisions (in this case, the assignment of grades) based on improper motivations. See the similar cases involving the social worker and sex offender administrative adjudicator; and though they may not be government employees, we’ve seen a cluster of nurse-related cases. In all of these cases, we are left with a nagging question: were these posts just idle musings and blowing off steam, or did social media provide a window into the author’s true but unacceptable beliefs? It seems like employers are all-too-often willing to assume the worst, i.e., they believe the employee’s words over the employee’s actions over the course of many years. As Venkat indicates, our lack of tolerance about off-hours social media venting may be yielding too many false positives.
Sitting in my role as a member of the teaching community, I personally felt that Munroe’s comments crossed over the line from darkly humorous to unacceptably troubling. It’s easy to become cynical about students, but I never lose sight of the fact that they are students, still learning and growing and investing in their skillsets. Thus, every day I get the opportunity (and have the responsibility) to help my students become more valuable professionals and move towards their professional and personal goals. I accept that not every student will achieve his/her potential and some will squander opportunities, but that doesn’t lessen my commitment to helping them improve.
(Admittedly, I’m lucky that I teach a more self-selected group of students than Munroe did, and I probably have less teaching responsibilities than she had, so my experiences aren’t 100% translatable.)
Based on my norms as a teacher, I disliked Munroe’s name-calling (dunderhead…?). As teachers, we all have our least-favorite students, but I try not to distill my students into a single negative attribute for fear that I will not treat them fairly in other respects. I really disliked Munroe’s blame-the-parents comments (e.g., “Just as bad as his sibling. Don’t you know how to raise kids?”). I’m sure Munroe has seen some lame parents over the years, but teachers are rarely in a good position to judge a parent’s overall parenting skills. And I completely disliked Munroe’s intimations that she wants to assign grades based on who she likes, not on academic merit. Teachers often joke about how we grade (see, e.g., Dan Solove’s classic post on grading exams), but this joke must be handled with care because the entire community relies upon teachers to maintain the integrity of the grading system. Putting all of this together, I can understand why the school district terminated her.
Along with Venkat, I’ll reiterate my call to government employees: social media is a terrible place to blow off steam about work! That’s what the teacher’s lounge is for.