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On April 22, 2020, in a decision in Ali v. Woodbridge Township School District, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (which is not controlling in Illinois) upheld the dismissal of a teacher who was terminated after complaints arose regarding the nature of his history instruction. Specifically, the teacher taught high school lessons on the Holocaust, in which he told students to question historical accounts of the Holocaust and lessons on the September 11 attacks. He posted links to his lessons and articles on a school-sponsored website so students could access them.

The District terminated the teacher’s employment, and he sued, alleging that the District discriminated against him “on the basis of race, religion, or perceived religion.” Additionally, the teacher claimed he was subject to a hostile work environment and that the District violated his First Amendment rights. The teacher specifically cited to comments made during his time at the District and during his termination meeting such as, “Hey Arabia Nights,” “Hey, Big Egypt,” and being called “Mufasa.” Finally, the teacher alleged that the District engaged in defamation when it spoke to reporters about his conduct. The federal district court granted summary judgment in favor of the District, upholding the teacher’s termination. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision.

The Third Circuit found that the teacher did not present sufficient evidence that he was terminated based on his race, religion, or perceived religion. Instead, the court stated that the District gave sufficient, non-discriminatory reasons for his termination, including his dissemination of links to his anti-Semitic online articles through the school’s official channels, his lack of remorse for his conduct, and his history of teaching Holocaust denial theories to students. In assessing whether the teacher was subject to a hostile work environment, the court found that although the comments the teacher cited were offensive, they did not “rise to the level of severity that would alter working conditions.” In assessing whether the District engaged in defamation toward the teacher, the court concluded that the District did not engage in defamation by simply stating it would take “swift action” to remove links to the teacher’s teaching materials and discipline him. The court also found that while the teacher’s reputation may have been damaged, there was no violation of his constitutional rights. Finally, in considering the teacher’s First Amendment claims, the court found he had no right to decide what would be taught in the classroom. Those decisions rested with the District, and, accordingly, the teacher did not have a protected First Amendment right in deciding the content of his lessons.

This case provides another example of a school district’s right to select curriculum and its control over curricular content. The case also provides a helpful reminder to school districts to ensure all termination decisions are made on a non-discriminatory basis and to continuously monitor that employees are not being discriminated against during their work for the district.

Please contact any attorney in our Labor/Personnel practice group with questions on employee discrimination and termination issues.

Source: Ali v. Woodbridge Township School District, 957 F.3d 174 (3d Cir. 2020)