Teacher who refused to censor students appeals case to high court

Thursday, December 17, 1998

Cecilia Lacks...
Cecilia Lacks

Cecilia Lacks, the former St. Louis public high school teacher fired because she did not censor her students' written work, appealed her case to the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday.


“The Supreme Court should hear my case, because if they don't it will be devastating to teachers and send a chilling effect … across the nation,” Lacks said.


Lacks, who taught English and journalism classes at Berkeley High School, sued the school district in 1996 after she was fired for allegedly violating a school no-profanity rule. She did not stop students from using profanity in their creative writing assignments.


For her part, Lacks said she was not given fair warning that the no-profanity rule applied to student writing assignments. A federal district court judge refused to dismiss Lacks' case in 1996, finding that evidence presented to the school board showed that school administrators allowed some class-related profanity.


She argued that school officials violated her First Amendment free-speech rights and also discriminated against her based on race. Lacks is white, while several of the school officials, including the school superintendent and principal, are black.


In 1996, a federal jury agreed with Lacks on both claims, awarding her $500,000 on the First Amendment claim and $250,000 on the race-discrimination claim.


However, last June, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the jury's decision, ruling in Lacks v. Ferguson Reorganized School District R-2 that “a school district does not violate the First Amendment when it disciplines a teacher for allowing students to use profanity repetitiously and egregiously in their written work.” The panel also rejected the race-discrimination claim.


After failing to obtain full panel review of the 8th Circuit's decision, Lacks took her case to the Supreme Court.


“I hope the Supreme Court will take my case because it has grave constitutional issues for teachers,” she said.


“Right now, teachers don't know what will happen to them if they talk about anything that someone might consider controversial, such as religious topics, cultural topics or reading certain books,” she said.


Leon Dayan, one of Lacks' attorneys, said: “It is very important that the Supreme Court lay out what the rules are with respect to school districts restricting teachers' academic freedom. Right now, teachers are afraid to do anything controversial. The First Amendment should protect the rights of teachers to experiment with innovative teaching methods as long as they are not doing anything that is directly prohibited. School districts must provide clear guidelines as to what teachers can and cannot do.”


“I had hoped that my legacy of 25 years in the public schools would be my good teaching,” Lacks said. “However, if this decision stands, my name will cause panic to teachers across the country. And that would be a horrible thing.”


Lacks hopes that the Supreme Court will act differently than it did in October, when it refused to hear the case of North Carolina educator Margaret Boring. Boring was transferred to another school after allowing her high school drama students to perform the controversial play Independence.


Lacks says the Supreme Court's refusal to hear Boring's case is “another sad tale about letting teachers know they should be scared all the time.”


“Teachers need guidance from the Supreme Court on these constitutional issues. Right now there is nothing consistent or predictable for us.”


The school district's attorney, Frank Susman, was out of town and unavailable for comment.