An application for writ of certiorari in the United States Supreme Court was recently filed by Plaintiff Lee-Walker in, Jeena Lee-Walker v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ. et al. Plaintiff teacher filed a lawsuit against her previous employer, the New York City Department of Education, alleging that the district retaliated against her in violation of her First Amendment and due process rights.
Plaintiff taught ninth-grade English and assigned a book to her class: Junot Díaz’s Nilda. A school administrator forbade Plaintiff from teaching about Nilda because of the book’s use of the n-word throughout. Ms. Lee-Walker also struggled with the school district over her lesson on the Central Park Five, a case in which five black and Latino teenagers were wrongfully convicted of a raping a white woman in Central Park in 1989. Plaintiff alleged that an assistant principal told her to be “more balanced” in how she taught the Central Park Five case because the administration feared it would “unnecessarily ‘rile up’ black students,” and “possibly create little ‘riots.’” After these two incidents, Plaintiff’s performance reviews suffered.
On November 23, 2016, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed Plaintiff’s case. The court’s rationale was that her termination was not a violation of her rights because school districts can “limit the content of school-sponsored speech so long as the limitations are ‘reasonably related to pedagogical concerns.’” The court also found the subject matter of the disagreement, Plaintiff’s lesson plans, was not entitled to First Amendment protections. On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed, and held that school administrators may limit the content of school-sponsored speech so long as the limitations are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns. Lee-Walker v. New York City Dep’t of Educ., No. 16-4164-CV, 2017 WL 4641250 (2d Cir. Oct. 17, 2017).
In a previous case, Garcetti v. Ceballos, the Supreme Court decided that “when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communication from employer discipline.” Justice Souter dissented, noting the effect this ruling would have on public university professors. The majority of the court noted that Justice Souter’s concern was not addressed and did not decide whether Garcetti’s analysis would apply to cases involving speech related to scholarship or teaching.
If the Supreme Court decides to hear Lee-Walker v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ., the Court will address two issues: (1) do state-employed pedagogues enjoy the protections of free speech in academia, especially given the Garcetti case and (2) if not, does the First Amendment protect a teacher or professor in a public school or university?