Federal judge dismisses Pa. teacher’s retaliation claim

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A federal judge’s recent ruling against a teacher who raised concerns about students’ possession of weapons shows the pervasive effect of the Supreme Court’s Garcetti decision and sends a stark warning to any school official who complains about safety and student discipline.

Brad Ankney began working as a teacher at Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Allegheny, Pa., in 2000. In the fall of 2008, while working with the AIU’s Alternative Education Program, which included students in the juvenile justice system and those deemed too disruptive for traditional schools, Ankney became concerned about students’ possession of dangerous weapons. That October, he notified Principal Barbara Wakefield about his concerns.

On Nov. 3, 2008, Ankney confiscated a knife from a student and reported the incident to Wakefield and Athena Petrolias, director of alternative education for AIU. A few days later, he e-mailed both Wakefield and Petrolias about the issue of student safety and expressed concern that not enough was being done to promote safety and to hold accountable students who brought weapons to school.

On Dec. 1, Ankney wrote to the Center for Safe Schools, detailing his safety concerns and the “apathetic attitude of our principal.” In a deposition in his lawsuit, Ankney said he contacted the Center for Safe Schools “because I was afraid for the safety of my students in that school, and I didn’t feel I was getting adequate support from administration.”

Sometime after first complaining to Wakefield, Ankney was suspended without pay for eight days for allegedly cursing at another teacher. He filed a grievance over the suspension, which an arbitrator later overturned in July 2010.

Ankney then sued in federal court, contending that Wakefield and Petrolias had retaliated against him — by, among other ways, suspending him and giving him a negative performance review — because of his critical speech about safety and discipline. The defendants countered that Ankney was not punished for any speech about safety issues, but because of his argument with another teacher.

In February 2011, U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster refused to dismiss Ankney’s First Amendment claim, contending that he had alleged a cognizable free-speech claim.

However, after more litigation, Lancaster granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on June 19, 2012. Lancaster determined that Ankney had no First Amendment claim because his complaints about school safety were part of his official job duties under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos.

In Garcetti, the Supreme Court ruled that public employees have no free-speech rights when they speak pursuant to their official job duties. Lancaster determined that Garcetti applied to Ankney’s claims because his speech about safety came from the “special knowledge” or experience he had gained through his job.

Ankney had argued that his e-mail to the Center for Safe Schools was protected citizen speech, because it was not part of his job duties to contact that outside organization. However, Lancaster rejected that argument, writing that “the applicable case law does not suggest that the speaker’s intended audience bears on whether the speech was related to his official duties.”

Lancaster also reasoned that “reporting safety issues was within Mr. Ankney’s job description.”

The decision in Ankney v. Wakefield raises concerns, particularly because it might chill the speech of other teachers to speak out about legitimate safety concerns. Furthermore, the judge contended that the intended audience of a public employee’s speech is not related to the question of whether the speech is part of his or her official duties. This proposition is dubious, as other courts across the country have determined that the intended audience of the speech is certainly a relevant factor.

Public school teachers should have the ability to address safety concerns without fear of reprisal, and the First Amendment should limit any type of retaliation against teachers who address such concerns.

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