May 19, 2015

Lindsay Kee, ACLU-TN communications director, (615) 320-7142

NASHVILLE – In a victory for free speech, the Williamson County School Board has agreed to end its unconstitutional investigation into educators’ protected free speech activities, restricting its inquiry to personnel matters only. The move follows negotiations with the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, which is representing six educators from Hillsboro School.

“The First Amendment guarantees that private citizens, even if public employees by day, are entitled to criticize their elected officials and question their motivations or policies,” said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU-TN legal director. “The school board now seems to understand that there is no justification for harassing people for exercising their constitutional rights. We will continue to monitor the school board’s inquiry to ensure that it does not cross the line and violate educators’ right to free speech again.”

The six Hillsboro School educators represented by the ACLU of Tennessee were part of a group of citizens participating in a private meeting at which school board policies were discussed. The meeting was held after school hours and off of school grounds in September 2014. No public funds were expended for the meeting.

Approximately six months after the meeting, an audio recording of the gathering, which had been altered to delete any references that it was held off campus, was circulated to the media, leading to false allegations that the meeting was mandatory and took place on school grounds during school hours.

Rather than conduct an investigation through the standard administrative process to confirm that the meeting took place at an appropriate time and location, school board members accused the educators of being “disloyal” and reportedly threatened them with disciplinary action, including discharge. One school board member attempted to conduct a private investigation, going to the school and demanding to speak with administrators. School board members also demanded that school superintendent, Dr. Mike Looney, and the Human Resources office not participate in any inquiry, and instead engaged a private law firm to investigate the meeting and its participants, at public expense. The law firm requested interviews with four of the educators and subjected two of them to interrogations that lasted nearly four hours and included irrelevant, invasive personal questions. They were also asked to name all of those present at the meetings and to identify who said what.

On April 23, 2015, ACLU-TN sent a letter to the Williamson County School Board demanding that it cease retaliation against school staff for engaging in free speech protected under the First Amendment. The school board ultimately agreed to restrict its investigation to personnel matters only, ending its unconstitutional investigation into the educators’ protected free speech activities.

“Like the classroom, democracy thrives when rooted in critical thinking and free dialogue,” said ACLU-TN executive director Hedy Weinberg. “We are pleased that this issue was resolved swiftly and that these educators can now get back to the business of teaching without fear of retaliation for simply engaging in protected free speech on their own time.”

A copy of ACLU-TN’s original letter is available here.