Pennsylvania teacher fired after blog posts cannot sue: U.S. court

By Jonathan Stempel

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) - A high school English teacher who claimed she was fired for making derogatory comments about her students on her blog cannot sue her Pennsylvania school district for violating her free speech rights, a divided federal appeals court ruled on Friday.

By a 2-1 vote, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said the Central Bucks School District's interest in educating its students outweighed the First Amendment rights of Natalie Munroe, the fired teacher.

Munroe had disparaged students as "rude, disengaged, lazy whiners," "frightfully dim," "utterly loathsome," "The Queen of Drama" and "A.I.R.H.E.A.D." in her blog, which was meant for a few friends but shared on Facebook by a student who found it.

"Munroe's various expressions of hostility and disgust against her students would disrupt her duties as a high school teacher and the functioning of the school district," Circuit Judge Robert Cowen wrote for the majority in a 55-page decision. "The speech at issue here was not protected because the disruption diminished any legitimate interest in its expression."

The posts drew national attention in February 2011 when Munroe, who had won tenure the preceding March, was suspended.

She was fired in June 2012 after receiving poor performance reviews that did not expressly refer to her blog.

Munroe sued the school district that month, but U.S. District Judge Cynthia Rufe in Philadelphia dismissed her lawsuit in July 2014. Friday's decision upheld that dismissal.

Steven Rovner, a lawyer for Munroe, said his client may ask the entire 3rd Circuit to review the case. "We believe the courts are not right on this issue, and we're still fighting for Natalie and her constitutional rights," he said in an interview.

Lawyers for the Central Bucks School District, located north of Philadelphia, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro dissented, finding "more than enough evidence" suggesting that Munroe was fired over the blog and her many interviews with the media.

"Too many signs suggest this was all a set-up that a jury needs to sort out," he wrote.

The case is Munroe v. Central Bucks School District et al, 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 14-3509.