Educators serving on campus or district committees can now breathe—and speak—a little easier at their meetings. That’s because Victoria ISD (VISD) was recently the springboard for a federal court of appeals case, Harris vs. Victoria ISD, that found broad constitutional protection for employees who make statements that their administration finds distasteful in connection with serving on site-based decision-making (SBDM) and similar committees.
The case began when poor relations between a VISD campus’s faculty and principal became serious enough to warrant the appointment of two members of the campus SBDM committee to a sub-committee to create an improvement plan for the campus. After the plan was implemented, the subcommittee met to discuss its progress. Apparently, things were not going so well, and one of the appointed teachers reported that many of the faculty members felt the principal was not following the plan and that a new principal was needed. The second appointed teacher said that if the superintendent (who was present at the meeting) did not take action on the matter, the faculty would “revolt.”
Shortly after the meeting, both teachers were reprimanded by the superintendent for their comments and were transferred to new campuses. After filing unsuccessful grievances, the two teachers filed suit in federal court, claiming a violation of their first amendment right to free speech.
Prior court decisions have established that employees of a school district are protected from adverse employment actions by the first amendment only when speaking on matters of public concern. Speech that concerns only the employee’s personal employment issues is not constitutionally protected. Therefore, the 5th Circuit Court that heard this case was confronted with two questions: Were the transfers actually adverse employment actions and were the teachers’ comments made on matters of public concern?
The court concluded “yes” on both questions. Not all employment actions are considered adverse, even if specifically taken because of an illegal motivation, and an employee’s subjective belief that an employment action is really a demotion is not enough to prove an adverse action. However, the court relied on three pieces of evidence: The superintendent testified that he intended the transfers to be disciplinary; mid-term, involuntary transfers were virtually non-existent in VISD; and a board member testified that the transfers labeled the teachers as troublemakers. Therefore, the court concluded that the transfers were an adverse employment action.
The court also found that the teachers’ comments at the meeting were protected speech. Because the teachers were merely reporting the views of others as part of their duties as appointed members of a legally-mandated campus committee, the court agreed that their comments were protected under the matters-of-public-concern argument even though their comments also contained an element of personal interest as faculty members of the school.
This is an important case. It assures employees that they may serve on such committees and fulfill their duties pursuant to those committees without fear of retaliation.