Johnson v. Pitt County Board of Education, No. 4:16-CV-214-D (E.D. N.C.) May 25, 2017
Plaintiff Johnson, a substitute teacher in Eastern North Carolina, sued the Pitt County School District for alleged violations of his civil rights in connection with his separation from service. He also claimed that his First Amendment rights were violated because, he asserted, h was terminated in retaliation for announcing to a classroom that he did not celebrate Christmas because is of pagan origin.
The speech protections of public employees in retaliation claims are analyzed by looking at whether any speech in issue was made as a matter of public concern, in contrast to an employee’s speaking about a private matter; the individual’s interest in speaking outweighed any interest in efficient and effective public service; that some action occurred that deprived a complainant of an important public benefit or that chilled speech; and that a causal connection could be found between the speech and the act allegedly causing injury.
The issue of public concern has different contours in school settings, where school boards have greater latitude in regulating speech in compulsory classroom settings. Curricular matters may be seen as bearing the imprimatur of the school, and are not protected. Classroom speech is particularly likely to be seen as curricular. Where, in study of world religions, Johnson made his remark about the pagan origins of Christmas, no constitutional protections were in play. The statement would appear to be school sponsored. That the statement was made in response to a student’s question would not change the result.