In September 2014, several Hillsboro School educators met after school hours and off of school grounds to discuss the school board, its actions and statements, and the then recent school board election campaign. 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 threatened them with disciplinary action, including discharge, for statements made at the private meeting. 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 the Director of Schools, 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 six 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 voices on the audio recording.
On April 23, 2015, ACLU-TN sent a letter to the Williamson County Board of Education explaining that public employees do not lose their constitutional right to speak on matters of public concern and demanding that it call off any further investigation into the protected speech of its employees and retract and condemn all threats by individual board members calling for the discipline or discharge of employees for speaking on matters of public concern.
The school board immediately agreed to restrict its investigation to personnel matters only, ending its unconstitutional investigation into the educators’ protected free speech activities. Short interviews were conducted with the educators to confirm that no one was coerced to attend the off campus meeting and that no employee utilized school funds, property or resources to promote the meeting. On July 13, 2015, the private attorney issued a final report completely exonerating the educators of any violation of school policies and confirmed that they were, indeed, participating in protected free speech activities.
Letter to Williamson County Board of Education (April 23, 2015)