HR News & Trends, Legal Issues

Court Upholds Firing For Teacher Who Called Students “Future Criminal” on Facebook

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By Eric B. Meyer

Jennifer O’Brien has a master’s degree in education and certifications as an elementary school teacher and supervisor.

All that education and no common sense.

O’Brien was assigned to teach the first grade in the City of Paterson (New Jersey) school district. All of her students were either African-American or Latino.

About fourth months into her teaching tenure, O’Brien posted two statements on Facebook:

I’m not a teacher — I’m a warden for future criminals!”

“They had a scared straight program in school — why couldn’t [I] bring [first] graders?”

Racist, you say? Not so, claimed O’Brien.

“Personal expression,” not a “matter of public concern”

Still, the stink of O’Brien’s brain farts wafted far and wide; the School Superintendent, reporters, angry parents. Unable to take the stench anymore, O’Brien was discharged.

At her tenure hearing before the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, the court upheld the firing in this opinion. It emphasized that O’Brien’s postings were not entitled to any First Amendment protection, because she was engaged in “personal expression” of dissatisfaction with her job and was not addressing a matter of public concern.

The Court added that even if the comments were a matter of public concern, the district’s need to operate its schools efficiently trumped O’Brien’s right to express her views on Facebook. Indeed, it becomes “impossible for parents to cooperate with or have faith in a teacher who insults their children and trivializes legitimate educational concerns on the internet.”

3 things employers should remember

‘Private employers, you can learn a few things from this decision:

  1. Remind your employees that there are no First Amendment free-speech rights in your workplace.
  2. While you’re at it, remind them not to act like an ass on Facebook.
  3. Don’t tolerate an employee ripping your customers online. They will find out about it and you’ll have to answer for it.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

Eric B. Meyer is a partner in the Labor and Employment Group of the Philadelphia-based law firm of Dilworth Paxson LLP . He dedicates his practice to litigating and assisting employers on labor and employment issues affecting the workplace, including collective bargaining, discrimination, employee handbook policies, enforcement of restrictive covenants, and trade secret protection. Eric also serves as a volunteer mediator for the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Contact him at emeyer@dilworthlaw.com .