Paterson, NJ -- The termination of a teacher who referred to her first-grade students as "future criminals" on her personal Facebook page has been upheld by a state appeals court.
Jennifer O'Brien was a tenured teacher in the Paterson school system who was transferred from School No. 29 to School No. 21 to teach first grade in in the 2010-2011 school year. On March 28, 2011, she posted two statements on Facebook: "I'm not a teacher -- I'm a warden for future criminals!" and "They had a scared straight program in school - why couldn't [I] bring [first] graders?"
School officials (as well as parents and the media) got wind of the statements, and officials subsequently filed a complaint against her for "conduct unbecoming a teacher," NJ.com reports She was suspended without pay, and after various levels of administrative due process within the education system (given that she was tenured), O'Brien was fired. She then took her case to the court system.
The teacher, who had an "unblemished" teaching career to that point, maintained that her Facebook postings were made out of frustration because of some disciplinary issues she was encountering in her classroom and had nothing to do with race or ethnicity. (According to court papers, her 23 students were either Latino or African-American.)
The basis of her court appeal, however, centered on alleged violations of her free speech rights under the First Amendment. The state appellate court ruled yesterday, however, that she failed to establish that her Facebook postings were protected under the First Amendment because the statements did not involve what the law generally considers the "public interest."
The court declared that it agreed with the commissioner of education that "O'Brien was not endeavoring to comment on a matter of public interest, that is, the behavior of students in school, but was making a personal statement, driven by her dissatisfaction with her job and conduct of some of her students."
The court added that even if the comments could be interpreted as matters of public concern, "her right to express those comments was outweighed by the district's interest in the efficient operation of its schools." As such, taking all the facts and circumstances together, the court concluded that "the seriousness of O'Brien's conduct warranted her removal from her tenured position in the district."