State appeals court: School district can prohibit teacher from distributing fliers

Thursday, December 23, 1999

School officials in Washington state did not violate the First Amendment rights of a teacher when they told him to stop distributing fliers at school critical of a principal’s decision, the state appeals court ruled recently.

Port Townsend High School teacher Steven Simpson distributed fliers criticizing Principal Arcella Hall’s decision to turn down Simpson’s senior-studies-class proposal. Instead, Hall allowed another teacher with more seniority to teach the new interdisciplinary class for senior students.

When Simpson learned of Hall’s decision in May 1995, he gave 125 copies of the flier to a junior student and asked her to distribute them to all juniors before class.

The flier criticized Hall’s decision and said Simpson possessed better credentials than the teacher the principal had selected to teach the special course.

Hall ordered Simpson to desist from distributing the fliers. Simpson then appealed Hall’s decision to the school district superintendent and the board of directors. Both affirmed Hall’s decision.

Simpson then filed suit in state court, contending that school district officials had violated his First Amendment rights.

After a trial court dismissed his lawsuit, Simpson took his case to the Washington Court of Appeals. On Dec. 17, the appeals court issued its opinion in favor of the school district.

The court acknowledged in Simpson v. Port Townsend School District that public employees have First Amendment rights and that “the government may not compel persons to relinquish their First Amendment rights as a condition of public employment.”

However, the appeals court cited U.S. Supreme Court case law for the proposition that public employers have broad discretion in personnel and internal affairs, which can oftentimes trump employees’ free-speech rights.

The court noted that the first two parts of a court’s analysis in a public employee free-speech case are: (1) whether the subject of the speech is a matter of public concern, and (2) whether the employer’s interest in an efficient workplace trumps the employee’s free-speech interest.

The appeals court agreed with the trial court that Simpson’s speech involved a matter of public concern. However, the appeals court said that a balancing of the employer’s and employee’s interests in the case required a finding in favor of the employer.

The court noted that when the speech in such a situation deals with a matter of public concern, the employer has the burden of proving that its interests in an efficient workplace are greater.

The court said that “because the flier dealt as much with a personal matter, the relative qualifications of Robertson [the teacher with more seniority] and Simpson, as with a matter of public concern, the District had a lesser burden of justifying the restrictions placed on Simpson.”

The judges also noted that a relevant factor for courts to consider in these cases was whether the speech would “create problems in maintaining discipline” in the workplace. The court said Simpson’s speech “antagonized some of the faculty.”

“Accordingly, the District was justified in believing that the fliers could interfere with discipline and create disharmony among the teachers,” the court wrote.

The court also ruled that the restrictions on Simpson were “narrow,” noting that he could still “speak to other teachers, the school board, the student newspaper, or anyone else about the matter.”

The court concluded: “Considering each of these factors, we agree with the trial court that the District’s interest in avoiding disruptions at the high school outweighed Simpson’s free-speech interest in discussing his proposal for interdisciplinary education, particularly in light of the minimal restrictions placed on Simpson.”

The attorneys who handled the case for Simpson and the school district could not be reached for comment.