FREE SPEECH RIGHTS OF PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHERS.

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Speech Outside of School

Teachers do not forfeit the right to comment publicly on matters of public importance simply because they accept a public school teaching position. Teachers cannot be fired or disciplined for statements about matters of public importance unless it can be demonstrated that the teacher’s speech created a substantial adverse impact on school functioning. A teacher’s off-campus statements regarding the war or participation in an off-campus political demonstration are not acceptable bases for job discipline or termination.

Speech Inside the Classroom

A teacher appears to speak for the school district when he or she teaches, so the district administration has a strong interest in determining the content of the message its teachers will deliver. While courts sometimes protect the academic freedom of college and university professors to pursue novel teaching methods and curriculum, these principles do not apply with equal force to K-12 teachers. It does not violate a teacher’s free speech rights when the district insists, for example, that she teach physics and not political science, or that she not lead students in prayer – even though both have the result of limiting what the teacher says in the classroom.

Washington courts have upheld the authority of school districts to prescribe both course content and teaching methods. Courts in other jurisdictions have ruled that teachers have no free speech rights to include unapproved materials on reading lists.

Although the boundaries are not precise, there are limits to a school district’s ability to control teachers’ controversial speech in the classroom. Courts have sometimes ruled that schools may not punish teachers for uttering particular words or concepts in class that are otherwise consistent with the school curriculum, where the school has no legitimate pedagogical purpose for the restriction, or where the restriction harms students’ ability to receive important ideas that are relevant to the curriculum.

A school district might choose not to include discussion about a controversial issue in its curriculum and direct teachers to avoid the topic unless it arises through student contributions to classroom discussion. Depending on the circumstances, a court might well approve such a rule. This assumes that the school is neutral in its implementation of the rule. If a school permits anti-war lesson plans but forbids pro-war lesson plans, such action would raise questions about viewpoint discrimination.

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