In Munroe v. Central Bucks School District, a Pennsylvania federal court determined that a public school teacher’s “opprobrious” comments in a private blog about her school, co-workers, students, and parents were not protected speech under the First Amendment.
The plaintiff began a private blog in 2009 in which she only identified herself as “Natalie M” and did not mention where she worked or lived. She mostly blogged about personal matters, such as her food and film preferences, but on a number of occasions blogged about students and co-workers, referring to some students as “jerk,” “rat-like,” “dunderhead,” “whiny, simpering grade-grubber with an unrealistically high perception of own ability level,” and “frightfully dim.” She also wrote that parents were “breeding a disgusting brood of insolent, unappreciative, selfish brats,” and referred to a co-worker by first name and with a vulgar epithet.
The school district became aware of the plaintiff’s blog a couple of years later when a local newspaper reporter began investigating because students apparently had been circulating the blog’s contents on various social media. The school district immediately suspended the plaintiff without pay. Subsequently, various major media news outlets picked up the story and it received national attention. The plaintiff eventually returned to work, but began to receive negative evaluations. The school district terminated her employment shortly thereafter.
To determine whether a public employee’s speech is protected by the First Amendment, a court must balance the employee’s interest in commenting on matters of public concern and the employer’s interest in promoting the efficiency of the public service it performs through its employee. In addressing her unlawful retaliation claim, the federal court acknowledged that the plaintiff’s blog predominantly focused on personal issues and occasionally touched on broad issues of public concern, but that “[w]hatever public concern she occasionally touched on is subsumed by personal invective; the blog’s ‘overall thrust’ devalues the discussion of public issues.” Thus, the court concluded that, unlike in other cases where courts upheld a teacher’s conduct as protected by the First Amendment because the teachers there spoke only to address matters of public concern, avoided use of personal or inflammatory invective, and there was no showing that the conduct had caused serious disruption to office operations, in this case the plaintiff’s blog “contains gratuitously demeaning and insulting language inextricably intertwined with her occasional discussions of public issues, and … her statements attracted considerable negative attention, from concerned parents and the public at large.
- This case is a reminder that employers may, under certain circumstances, take appropriate corrective action against an employee based on the employee’s conduct on social media even if that conduct occurs in a private social media account outside the workplace. However, each set of circumstances is different and employers are advised to seek legal counsel to determine what actions might be appropriate under different circumstances.