Teacher Who Blogged Pseudonymously About Students Being “Rat-Like” or “Dunderheads” Loses Appeal
This case involved a teacher who maintained a pseudonymous blog that, along with her personal observations and musings, chronicled some of her frustrations with students. One post in particular talked about her challenges with providing tailored feedback for her students, and the nature of canned comments, and those she would like to see included in the list of canned comments:
Gimme an A.I.R.H.E.A.D. What’s that spell? Your kid!
There is such a thing as too loud in oral presentations. We shouldn’t need earplugs.
Nowhere near Nowhere near as good as her sibling.
Are you sure they’re related?
I won’t even remember her name next semester if I see her in the hall.
Asked too many questions and took too long to ask them. The bell means it’s time to leave!
Has no business being in Academic.
Just as bad as his sibling. Don’t you know how to raise kids?
Sneaking, complaining, jerkoff.
Dresses like a street walker.
Whiny, simpering grade-grubber with an unrealistically high perception of own ability level.
One of the most annoying students I’ve had the displeasure of being locked in a room with for an extended time.
Rude, belligerent, argumentative fuck.
Weirdest kid I’ve ever met.
Am concerned that your kid is going to come in one day and open fire on the school. (Wish I was kidding.)
I didn’t realize one person could have this many problems.
Your daughter is royalty. (The Queen of Drama)
Liar and cheater.
Unable to think for himself.
I hear the trash company is hiring . . .
Utterly loathsome in all imaginable ways.
The court also says some of her posts included details that would allow parents and students to determine the identities of the subjects in question. It was unclear exactly how the school found out about the blog, but when it did, all hell broke loose, and parents complained. The blog went viral. The administration said the school was on the verge of a riot or a “sit in”. (Her blog post on the immediate aftermath here: “Bloggate 2012”.) Plaintiff went out on a pre-scheduled leave, although she received a negative evaluation, and when she returned after her leave, she was fired. (Oddly, one of her negative evaluations involved “inappropriate use of a ‘nanny cam’ during teaching hours”.)
The district court, applying the Pickering balancing test, rejected her claims. (Post on the district court ruling here: “When Is It Appropriate For Teachers To Call Students “Rat-Like” or “Dunderheads” in a Pseudonymous Blog? Never”.) The Third Circuit affirms.
In a lengthy opinion, the court says that the speech in question was more in the nature of employee venting than it was a citizen speaking out on matters of public concern. True, some of posts touched on socially relevant issues, but viewed as a whole, the blog was a “vehicle to keep in touch with friends” and a way to “vent personal grievances or express her visceral reaction to her daily experiences.” [Venkat: I know a more suitable medium for expressing visceral reactions to daily experiences! It would not have altered the First Amendment analysis, but perhaps a few stray tweets would have been less of a big deal.]
Even assuming her speech implicated a matter of public concern, which the court reluctantly does, the court says that the school district’s interest in efficiency and a disruption-free environment outweighed the teacher’s (and public’s) interest in speaking. Plaintiff tried to cast the parents’ reaction and their numerous requests to have their children opt out from plaintiff’s classes as a heckler’s veto, but the court says no.
One judge, dissenting, says that what really bothered the school was the media blowup, and plaintiff should not be blamed for this (even if she willingly participated and gave interviews). In fact, this judge says that plaintiff may have been inappropriately fired for “speaking out”. While the initial blog posts may or may not have been problematic, this judge says to the extent the firing was motivated by her interviews, that could state a First Amendment claim.
This was a tough case for the plaintiff. As noted in our initial blog post about the case, it’s fraught with risk for an employee to blog about her job in the first place, but this goes double for someone placed in a position of trust. The majority ruling is not terribly surprising, although you’re still left with the impression that plaintiff was a conscientious teacher and her venting was a useful tool to stay sane. The school and administration could have probably used this as a teaching moment, rather than taking the route of terminating her and being forced to defend its legal decision in court.
As is always the case, people who post online leave plenty of admissions against interest, and courts are never hesitant to pull those out as trump cards. Similar to how privacy settings are used against you, it’s beyond easy to pick through someone’s online writings and find something that cuts against a position they espouse, and that’s the case here.
Perhaps the entire episode is a testament to how difficult it is to maintain anonymity or pseudonymity online, and that could be the biggest cautionary tale from this case.
I would guess she may seek rehearing from an en banc panel, but it’s tough to predict what her chances are.
Eric’s Comment: The court said Munroe’s blog had a maximum of 9 subscribers, including Munroe and her husband. Let’s assume it’s inadvisable to attempt any “anonymous” or “pseudonymous” blog given the odds that anonymity and pseuodnymity eventually will be blown, especially as each post adds more details that make reidentification easier. Are there any other online tools or media that a disgruntled teacher can safely use to vent among a small group of family and friends? The answer may be no, but that creates its own social problem.
Case Citation: Munroe v. Central Bucks School District, 2015 WL 5167011 (3rd Cir. June 8, 2015) [pdf]