School District Didn’t Violate First Amendment for Reassigning Teacher Who Blogged–Richerson v. Beckon

By Eric Goldman

Richerson v. Beckon, 2008 WL 833076 (W.D. Wash. March 27, 2008)

A school district appointed Richerson to a position with split responsibilities as a curriculum development specialist and an official mentor for other teachers. She then blogged on her personal blog (I believe this is the blog) about the person who was hired to replace her previous role:

Save us White Boy!

I met with the new me today: the person who will take my summer work and make it a full-time year-round position. I was on the interview committee for this job and this guy was my third choice … and a reluctant one at that. I truly hope that I have to eat my words about this guy…. But after spending time with this guy today, I think Boss Lady 2.0 made the wrong call in hiring him … He comes across as a smug know-it-all creep. And that’s probably the nicest way I can describe him…. He has a reputation of crapping on secretaries and not being able to finish tasks on his own…. And he’s white. And male. I know he can’t help that, but I think the District would have done well to recruit someone who has other connections to the community…. Mighty White Boy looks like he’s going to crash and burn.

There are a few obvious problems with this post. First, it’s just not a nice post. Second, the discussions about the new hire’s race and gender could be legally problematic. Finally, and most importantly, Richerson’s new duties as a mentor for other teachers expressly required that she develop trusting and confidential relationships with her mentored teachers, and this post raises some questions about her ability to develop those relationships. As a result, once the school district discovered the post, Richerson was reprimanded verbally and in a memo to the file.

Subsequently, the district received a second complaint about Richerson’s blog. Another teacher was chief negotiator for the teacher’s union, and Richerson blogged “What I wouldn’t give to draw a little Hitler mustache on the chief negotiator.” I’d have to see the full post to understand the context for this statement. Taken out of context, it appears to be another not-nice statement. It also further undermines confidence that Richerson could develop the kind of rapport with other teachers to provide the mentorship support expected from her job. As a result of this statement, the district reassigned Richerson from her position and moved her back into being a classroom teacher. In response to this reassignment, Richerson sued for civil rights violations (42 USC 1983) because of the alleged curtailment of her First Amendment rights.

The court shows her little sympathy for what it describes as her “salacious mean spirited behavior”:

No teacher who was aware of the attack on “White Boy” set forth above could possibly be expected to enter into a trusting, mentoring, confidential relationship with an instructional coach who had revealed the substance of a teaching position interview as did plaintiff….Not only was the blog set forth above a breach of confidentiality, it was racist, sexist, and bordered on vulgar….[The] Hitler” and “mustache” remarks far exceeded normal standards of decency and no relevance to the issue of “public concern” plaintiff suggests she was addressing….Plaintiff’s inability to control her rage and/or passion at the least justifies the reassignment of her duties so as not to expose teachers wanting to improve their classroom skills to potential exposure on plaintiff’s blog.

Accordingly, the court grants summary judgment for the school district, dismissing her case.

When dealing with employees who blog about their jobs on personal blogs, employers and courts need to carefully balance numerous competing interests, but I think the court reached the right result in this case. Ultimately, given the nature of the job duties Richerson was asked to perform, her blogging choices raised serious doubts about her ability to perform that job properly. I think this is a good cautionary tale for every employee who blogs about his/her work life–even if blog posts don’t expressly violate the law, they can still trigger a reassessment of the employee’s judgment in ways that damage the employee’s job prospects.