Special-ed teacher, fired for complaint, loses case

Friday, February 12, 2010

A special-education teacher in Booneville, Miss., who complained about corporal punishment of an autistic student by another teacher has no First Amendment claim, a federal district court has ruled.

The court reasoned that the teacher’s complaints about treatment of her student fell under the rubric of work-related speech, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled has no First Amendment protection in Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006).

At Anderson Elementary School in the Booneville School District, Kathy Lamb worked with eight students, including an autistic child known in court papers as C.J.

C.J. spent part of his school days in Lamb’s class and part in a regular classroom taught by Ginger Murphy. In April 2008, Lamb went to Murphy’s classroom to take C.J. to her classroom. Murphy told Lamb that she had paddled C.J. for disruptive behavior. Lamb objected to such a practice with an autistic child and said so. Murphy then went to Principal Beverly Hill’s office and complained about Lamb.

Hill called Lamb into her office and told her it was not professional to speak to Murphy as she had. Lamb told the principal that “children who are autistic don’t understand corporal punishment.” A few days later, Lamb received a letter from the school superintendent stating that her teaching contract would not be renewed.

Lamb filed a federal lawsuit in October 2008, contending that school officials retaliated against her for criticizing C.J.'s punishment. School officials countered that Lamb had no First Amendment claim because her speech was job-related within the meaning of Garcetti.

In her Feb. 3 opinion in Lamb v. Booneville School District, U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock dismissed the First Amendment claim. She said Lamb had testified in her deposition that she viewed it as part of her role as a teacher to discuss how her students were disciplined.

“Based on the record evidence, the Court finds that Plaintiff spoke as an employee in expressing her view that corporal punishment was not an effective means of discipline for an autistic child,” Aycock wrote.

Jim D. Waide III, Lamb’s attorney, said no decision had been made on whether to appeal the decision.

“The Garcetti decision is very unfortunate,” he said. “I don’t think the U.S. Supreme Court realized the damaging ramifications that its decision would have. While Garcetti itself involved somewhat trivial speech in a workplace memorandum, the decision has been expanded to cover cases involving very important, public issues and speech. For example, this case involves speech about the protection and well-being of children.”

“It is just an unfortunate fact that we have to deal with Garcetti until the Court sees fit to take another case and perhaps reexamine its holding,” Waide added.

A message requesting comment was left with attorneys for the Booneville School District.

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