A first grade teacher in Paterson, New Jersey who described herself online as “a warden for future criminals” should be fired, according to an administrative law judge. The state’s education commissioner will decide whether to accept the ALJ’s non-binding ruling.
The judge reportedly wrote that the comment on the teacher’s Facebook page “demonstrated a complete lack of sensitivity to the world in which her students live.” Reports describe Paterson as a poor, urban community with a high crime rate and note that “school officials interpreted [the teacher’s] comment as racially tinged”. The teacher, Jennifer O’Brien, testified that she “was speaking out of frustration” after, among other things, being hit by a student, and that she is “actually scared for their futures, some of them.” Apparently, truth is not a defense.
O’Brien published the comment to her Facebook friends but it ended up forwarded to administrators and parents including those who picketed and called for her dismissal – another reminder that nothing on the Internet is private.
This is not the first time a teacher has been disciplined for a social media post. A Florida teacher was recently demoted after posting homophobic comments and a California teacher was fired for posting graphic Craigslist ads soliciting sex. Earlier this year a Pennsylvania teacher was suspended for calling students her students “disrespectful oafs” and “lazy loafers”, among other things, in a Facebook post. That teacher reportedly got her job back and has not shied away from social media – she maintains a blog titled “Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket” where she regularly criticizes her school district for, among other things, allegedly attempting to render her “superfluous by encouraging students and their parents to opt out of my classes”.
These public school teachers and others have learned the hard way that the First Amendment often will not protect them from the consequences of their online speech. Recognizing that teachers’ off-duty speech, when publicized, can affect their ability to effectively interact with students, many districts allow teachers to be disciplined for online speech. Their constitutional theories will likely be tested by appellate courts in the coming years if the trend continues.