If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say . . .
Like many people nowadays, Natalie Munroe had a blog where she shared tips about cooking and child rearing. The high school English teacher from Doylestown, PA, also used her blog to sound off about her students, referring to them as “jerks,” “rat-like,” and “frightfully dim.” Her students’ parents fared no better on her blog; she wrote that parents were “breeding a disgusting brood of insolent, unappreciative, selfish brats.” In one post, Munroe made a list of comments she wished she could write about her students including “a complete and utter jerk in all ways,” “though academically ok, your kid has no other redeeming qualities,” “liar and cheater,” and “utterly loathsome in all imaginable ways.”
Students started sharing the blog posts on social media. Once the school administration caught wind of the blog in February 2011, Munroe was placed on an immediate, unpaid suspension. By that time Munroe’s plight had been covered by several major news outlets and her appearances on television did nothing but fan the flames. After taking a maternity leave for the rest of the semester, Munroe returned to work in August 2011. In the meantime, she received her first-ever negative performance evaluation from the Superintendent. She continued to receive negative evaluations after her return to work and was required to submit overly detailed lesson plans. Munroe was terminated on June 26, 2012 for her supposed poor performance and she filed suit alleging that the school district retaliated against her for her exercise of her First Amendment rights.
In Munroe v. Central Bucks School District, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of PA granted summary judgment to the school district on July 25, 2014, meaning that Munroe could not pursue her case. It is well settled that a public employee’s speech is protected when he or she speaks as a private citizen upon a matter of public concern and the employee’s interest in exercising his or her First Amendment rights is greater than the employer’s interest in the efficient operation of the public agency. Unfortunately for Munroe, the court found that while her blog occasionally touched upon matters of public concern, the harm caused by the blog’s “personal invective” outweighed the potential public value of her other posts. The court noted that Munroe’s speech, “in both effect and tone, was sufficiently disruptive so as to diminish any legitimate interest in its expression, and thus her expression was not protected.” The lesson for public employees here is that if you want to join the blogosphere, stick to sharing your best zucchini bread recipes.