A federal judge has ruled that a Bucks County school district did not violate a high school teacher’s free speech when it fired her in 2012 after discovering her personal blog, which disparaged some students as “frightfully dim,” “utterly loathsome” and “whiny.”
In a Friday judgment that blocked the teacher’s lawsuit from going to trial, U.S. District Judge Cynthia Rufe wrote that the blog failed a long-standing judicial test that balances a teacher’s free speech rights against the interests of a school district to operate efficiently.
Rufe wrote that Natalie Munroe’s blog focused mainly on her personal life, sometimes mentioning unnamed students, their parents and coworkers at Central Bucks High School East. But Munroe rarely addressed issues of greater public concern that are typically protected in free speech cases involving teachers, such as a proposed tax increase or academic integrity, Rufe wrote.
“Far from implicating larger discussions of educational reform, pedagogical methods, or specific school policies, [MUNROE]mostly complained about the failure of her students to live up to her expectations, and focused on negative interactions between herself and her students,” Rufe wrote.
After Munroe’s posts drew national media attention in 2011, parents complained and students were allowed to opt out of her 11th grade English class. Rufe wrote that Munroe’s blog “was sufficiently disruptive so as to diminish any legitimate interest in its expression, and thus her expression was not protected.”
Sharon M. O’Donnell, the attorney who handled the case for Central Bucks’ insurance company, declined to comment. Steve Rovner, Munroe’s attorney, told The Inquirer on Tuesday that she will appeal the case.
“We respectfully disagree with the judge,” Rovner said. “The appellate court will have the chance to decide on the free speech issue.”
In the lawsuit Munroe filed in 2012, Munroe claims that her blog is protected as free speech under the constitution because she authored it as a private citizen. She claims the district fired her as retaliation for her blog posts, which the district has denied.
In her lawsuit, Munroe said she meant for her blog, which she wrote under the moniker “Natalie M,” to be anonymous. It did not name her school, students or colleagues but included her photo. She often blogged about her children, the movies she liked and yoga class. But she also wrote posts that said, “My students are out of control. They are rude, disengaged, lazy whiners.”
In 2011, her blog drew attention within the district through social media before attracting news organizations. The district suspended her before reinstating her months later, citing her legal right to work. But in an unusual move, the district allowed students to opt out of her classes.
Munroe has claimed that the district then barred her requests to transfer to one of two other high schools within the district and punished her with overly critical job evaluations before firing her in 2012. District officials have said they fired Munroe for poor performance, not her blog posts. Rufe's ruling did not weigh in on the matter of exactly why she was fired.
Munroe’s suit asks that she keep her job, plus compensatory and punitive damages.