Thursday, May 9, 2013

Public Employees and Free Speech


by Joie' Johnson-Walker 

A New York City guidance counselor was fired just days before receiving tenure for risky photos floating around the internet from her past modeling career.

Last Fall, Tiffani Webb, a “highly regarded” guidance counselor at Murray Bergtraum High School for Business Careers is suing the Department of Education of New York for “wrongful termination, sex discrimination and violation of her First Amendment Rights” according to an exclusive from the NewYorkPost.com. 

Webb, now 37, modeled in seductive lingerie during her late teens and early twenties. When pursuing her career in education, she stopped. According to the NewYorkPost.com, “Webb disclosed her former career when first hired. Yet she was investigated by the DOE three times.”

This issue became a matter of concern when a student allegedly found a picture, one that was not authorized by Webb for release, online and shared it with the former principal Andrea Lewis. 

According to the NewYorkPost.com, an employee of the DOE reported that Webb was dismissed for “conduct unbecoming.”

A three-member chancellor’s committee voted on Webb’s dismissal in a 2-1 rule. The dissenting member argued, “Her professional work as a guidance counselor has been outstanding, and she should not be punished for something that happened years ago.”

Webb is not the only public school employee facing this issue. Public employees across the nation are being let go for media posted across the internet. Many public employees are arguing violations of their First Amendment rights. 

In 2008, Stacy Snyder, a student-teacher from Millersville University was denied her Certificate to Teach after students found her personal Myspace page. The defendants claimed that they “cautioned the student teachers to not refer to any students or teachers on their personal webpages” Snyder v. Millersville University, C.A. 07-1660, U.S. District Court for the District of Eastern Pennsylvania (2008).

Although the pictures found were not the sole result of Snyder’s denial, it is believed that they played a major role in the defendants case on why Snyder was “unsatisfactory.”

Snyder argued that the First Amendment allowed her the right to free expression through her MySpace. However, the presiding judge found that the defendants did not violate Snyder’s First Amendment right to free expression because her posts were not issues of “public concern.”

Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968) found that "the interests of the [employee] as a citizen, in commenting on matters of public concern" must be balanced against "the interest of the State as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees."

It seems that Tiffani Webb is going to have a hard time fighting this case because government employees are only protected under the discretion of public concern. 

There is a thin line between freedom of expression and matters of public concern for those employed by the state. The question is, how much flexibility does a state employee have in the matters of individual liberty? 

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