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How do courts balance a teacher’s First Amendment rights against the interests of the public school system?

It depends on the context and the particular court reviewing the claim. Some courts apply the general line of public employee free-speech case law when evaluating a claim by a public school teacher. Under this test, a court first asks whether the teacher's speech touched on a matter of public concern.

If the teacher’s speech does touch on a matter of public concern, the court balances the teacher's right to free expression against the school district's interests in an efficient workplace.1 The general Pickering-Connick test applies to most teacher speech that occurs outside the classroom environment.

If the teacher speech involves the curriculum or occurs in the classroom, most courts apply the more deferential standard in Hazelwood. This standard asks whether there is a legitimate educational reason for the school board's policy. In fact, one federal appeals court even determined that the Hazelwood standard -- where any form of censorship must be reasonably related to a legitimate educational reason -- should apply to a teacher's in-class speech.2 That court ruled as follows:

We are convinced that if students' expression in a school newspaper bears the imprimatur of the school, then a teacher’s expression in the "traditional classroom setting" also bears the imprimatur of the school. . . Although the Pickering test accounts for the state’s inter-ests as an employer, it does not address the significant interests of the state as educator.3

As this case indicates, many courts are highly deferential to employer interests, especially public school officials. As a result, teachers should understand that the traditional First Amendment rights of academic freedom generally accorded to university professors are much more limited in public primary and secondary schools.


1 Pickering v. Bd. of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968); Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138 (1983).

2 Miles v. Denver Public Schools, 944 F.2d 773 (10th Cir. 1991).

3 Id. at 776-777.

Last updated: Friday, June 22, 2018 | 04:32:34