Teacher blogging is becoming more popular, but is it legally dangerous for educators to indulge in the act?
Part of our societal contract is to provide a public education system. And in said system, we tend to favor affable teachers who understand — and enjoy working with — young people. As such, where does our allegiance land when a public educator maintains a semi-anonymous blog, wherein they disparage students, parents and school administrators? Does free speech win out over the arguable well-being of the targeted students?
Natalie Munroe, an eleventh grade English teacher in Pennsylvania, found out her community’s answer to that conundrum last month. She was fired.
But Munroe is fighting back in the form of a $5,000,000 federal lawsuit which essentially asks:
- Is free speech more important than a student’s right to a positive, unbiased and encouraging teacher?
- Are teachers legally obligated to refrain from blogging about students?
- Do educators have a moral obligation not to disparage students online?
Teacher Natalie Munroe’s Blog: Catalyst for the First Amendment Lawsuit
The fracas started over Munroe’s blog entitled “Where are we going, and why are we in this Handbasket?” Munroe’s lawsuit maintains the blog was “anonymous” even though it included pictures of the teacher. She also blogged under the name, Natalie M. – a pen-name that doesn’t do much to obfuscate her real name, Natalie Munroe. Nevertheless, Munroe insists it was meant to be a private blog, which only her friends and family were invited to follow. It was, however, publicly indexed; as such, even if people weren’t invited to follow, it could be found via a search engine.
Like many blogs, Munroe’s was often used as an outlet to vent her daily frustrations. Being a high school teacher, those frustrations included her students, parents and superiors. At times she stuck to fairly innocuous quips about her students and called them “out of control;” at other times, she arguably went for the jugular and opted for phrases like “dunderheads,” “frightfully dim” and “utterly loathsome.” Munroe once declared that one of her students was “a complete and utter jerk in all ways.” Natalie M. also lamented about “canned report card responses” and wished that she could put “dresses like a streetwalker” on a few of her students’ quarterly grade analyses.
Teacher Blogging: Munroe v. Central Bucks School District
Word got out that “Handbasket” was the work of Natalie Munroe and within a few months she got her walking papers. The tenured teacher believes her blog is to blame for the firing, while school officials insist it has more to do with “poor performance.”
Munroe filed a “First Amendment Retaliation case” on June 21, 2012 in federal court alleging her firing violated her first amendment rights. Named defendants include the Central Bucks School District, the superintendent and the principal of her school. Munroe is asking for reinstatement, back pay and front pay, in addition to punitive damages related to civil rights violations, emotional distress and reputation damage – a package totaling $5 million dollars.
Public Education v. The Internet: Striking the Right Jurisdictional Balance When It Comes To Teacher Blogging
Munroe’s case is intriguing because of the questions it raises about the intersection of public education, digital technology and the law. As the world we live in becomes more digitized, what legislative and societal rules should be adapted to ensure both personal freedoms and a healthy learning environment for the “next generation”?
Should teachers be censured for lambasting their students online? If a teacher is going to maintain a blog about their students, should statutes exist to ensure it’s not publicly searchable — for student privacy right reasons? Do parents have the right to demand that a demeaning teacher be removed? If so, where is the law-line drawn?
Blogging teachers aren’t the only issue involving Internet law and the public school system. In fact, many states are in the process of examining cyber bullying legislation and deciding whether or not schools can enact punishments for cyber harassment that occurs off campus.
The more we integrate the Internet into our lives, the more gray-area Internet law implications will arise. Moreover, it’s likely these issues will involve ethical questions that may force a robust public discourse about online free speech and how it relates to students’ rights versus teacher bloggers.