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A Tallahassee principal and teacher face calls to resign over Facebook posts, but the First Amendment likely protects them

Thumbs up on a brick wall
Brad Pict
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Upset parents want a Tallahassee principal to be fired. She posted comments to her personal Facebook page critical of new state laws restricting discussions of race, history, gender, and sexual identity in the classroom. While the first amendment likely protects the principal’s job, she’s still being pressured to exit.

During a recent school board meeting, several local parents and even a local radio host took issue with the comments posted to the principal’s personal Facebook page. Her post argued parents should leave teaching to teachers. She said schools would continue to teach kids in spite of parents and called the new laws around how schools discuss gender and sexual identity, along with race and history, “stupid bills.”

“If she’s so tired, stay home. Pick another job. No one called her a hero,” said Jason Levy, the father of a sixth grader at Cobb Middle School. “You know who the real heroes are? The parents that stayed home with their kids, missed work, in spite of this school board’s keeping kids home for an extended amount of time when the rest of the state opened.”

Brandy Andrews also took issue with the principal’s words and cited the comments as an example of an attitude she believes is the reason more than 2,000 children have left the Leon County School District since the start of the pandemic.

“There are no repercussions for principals, teachers, who make public posts that spark negativity about parents, particularly the Cobb principal (Sarah) Hembree,” Andrews said. “Why are these staff members allowed to tell parents to butt out?”

“They’re speaking on their personal Facebook pages, not even at school, so there’s no possibility of disruption at school based on their expression of speech,” says Pam Marsh, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation based in Tallahassee. “So I think, were they to be dismissed - the principal and the teacher - they would have very good suits to bring under the First Amendment.” A teacher at another local school has also been getting pushback for taking a similar stance on their personal social media page.

Marsh says decades of lawsuits and court rulings have firmly placed the law on the principal’s side. The most applicable case is Tinker v. Des Moines, a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case where justices ruled neither teachers nor students “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The principal’s Facebook comments were first reported by Tallahassee Reports, and Rep. Jason Shoaf, R-Blountstown, suggested the principal should be fired. Other major court rulings have also weighed in on free speech and employment: chief among them, Pickering vs. Board of Education.

“Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote ‘the threat of dismissal from public employment is a potent means of inhibiting speech,’ and he also said ‘a teacher’s exercise of his right to speak on issues of public importance may not furnish the basis for his dismissal from public employment,’” Marsh says.

Another case, 2005’s Garcetti vs. Ceballos, adds more nuance. In that case, the court found when an employee makes statements while carrying out their official duties, they are no longer speaking as private citizens, and there are no constitutional employment protections for their speech. “So there may be a gray line between outside of school criticizing a bill on their personal Facebook page versus being a teacher in front of a classroom involved in their employment duties,” Marsh says.

The principal’s comments earned an endorsement from School Board Chairman Darryl Jones, who highlighted her post on his own social media and said he agreed with her statements. During the recent school board meeting, member Alva Striplin distanced herself from the principal’s words.

“To the statement made from the Cobb principal, I don’t agree with it, and I’m just throwing out my own opinion,” Striplin said. “I believe that parents should be completely involved in their children’s education. As a mother of six, I should be the first person involved.”

It’s not lost on Marsh and others that calls for the principal to be fired for speaking out on social media mirror that of calls from the left to cancel speech they don’t agree with either. Marsh says the first amendment is for everyone, regardless of their politics, and that right to speak - no matter how disagreeable or who disagrees - is still protected speech.