On May 10, 2017, an Illinois federal district court in Valentia v. Harper, rejected a teacher’s First Amendment claim against her building principal, finding that although the teacher engaged in speech protected by the First Amendment, she failed to prove that her speech was what motivated the principal’s decision to eliminate her position.
Valentina Sorescue, a fifteen-year veteran of Chicago Public Schools, claimed that she was laid off in retaliation for reporting alleged student attendance data manipulation by school administrators. Sorescue taught at Manley Career Academy High School where she also was a member of the Professional Problems Committee, a committee made up of the principal, support personnel, and teachers. Through her position on the committee, Sorescue allegedly uncovered data indicating that Manley administrators were improperly manipulating student attendance data by changing students’ absences from “unexcused” to “school function.”
Sorescue and two other teachers reported their allegations to a reporter in June 2015, however, Sorescue made her report anonymously. A reporter wrote an article covering the allegations entitled “What Schools Will Do to Keep Students on Track” that the Atlantic published on July 6, 2015. Manley’s principal, Trista Harper, learned about the article that day, but she claimed that she did not know Sorescue was one of the sources for the article until after Sorescue was laid off on October 5, 2015. After she was laid off, Sorescue brought a First Amendment claim against Harper, alleging that Harper selected her position to be eliminated in retaliation for Sorescue’s exercise of her First Amendment rights.
In analyzing Sorescue’s claim, the court first had to determine whether Sorescue engaged in constitutionally protected speech. In order for a public employee’s speech to be protected by the First Amendment, the employee must be speaking as a private citizen on a matter of public concern. Harper did not dispute that Sorescue was speaking on a matter of public concern, but she contended that Sorescue was speaking as an employee, not a private citizen because she learned about the alleged data manipulation through her membership on the Professional Problems Committee and had a duty to report her allegations. The court rejected this argument, finding that Sorescue was speaking as a private citizen when she reported her allegations to a news reporter. The mere fact that Sorescue learned of the alleged data manipulation through her membership on the committee did not mean that she was speaking as a public employee, especially given that she reported the allegations outside of CPS’s internal reporting processes.
However, even though Sorescue’s report of the alleged data manipulation was protected by the First Amendment, the court found that she failed to establish that Harper decided to eliminate her position because of her protected speech. It was undisputed that Harper did not learn that Sorescu was one of the anonymous sources for the Atlantic article until after Sorescue was laid off. Because Sorescu could not establish a causal connection between her speech and the adverse employment action, the court rejected her First Amendment claim.
First Amendment cases can be very fact sensitive as it is not always clear whether a public employee’s speech is pursuant to his or her official duties. Accordingly, school officials should exercise caution when disciplining employees for their speech.
Contact Tina Christofalos or Chris Hoffman with your employee First Amendment Inquiries.