The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that a public school district did not infringe on a math teacher’s First Amendment free speech liberties by ordering him “not to use his public position as a pulpit from which to preach his own views on the role of God in our Nation’s history to the captive students in his mathematics classroom.”
That little zinger was in the first line of the opinion. Want to guess how strongly the Ninth Circuit felt about this case?
Bradley Johnson, a math teacher with more than 30 years of experience, decorated his classroom with two, seven-foot banners the Poway Unified School District deemed “questionable.”
One banner had red, white, and blue stripes and stated in large block type: "IN GOD WE TRUST"; "ONE NATION UNDER GOD"; "GOD BLESS AMERICA"; and, "GOD SHED HIS GRACE ON THEE." The other stated: "All men are created equal, they are endowed by their CREATOR." On second banner, the word "creator" occupied its own line, and each letter of "creator" was capitalized and nearly double the size of the other text.
The school district told Johnson to remove the banners to comply with the California Education Code. Johnson removed the banners, and subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging that Poway had violated his rights under the First Amendment free speech rights.
Johnson initially maintained that his banners were purely patriotic with no religious purpose, but later added, "I'm not intending to highlight or promote any of that kind of religious background ... I'm trying to highlight the religious heritage and nature of our nation, that we have that as a foundation."
The court noted that when Johnson, a high school calculus teacher, goes to work and performs the duties he is paid to perform, he speaks not as an individual, but as a public employee, and the school district is free to "take legitimate and appropriate steps to ensure that its message is neither garbled nor distorted."
Just as the Constitution would not protect Johnson were he to decide that he no longer wished to teach math at all, preferring to discuss Shakespeare rather than Newton, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it does not permit him to speak as freely at work in his role as a teacher about his views on God, our Nation's history, or God's role in our Nation's history as he might outside of the classroom.
California teachers have caused quite the ruckus lately with both pro-religion and anti-religion expression in the classroom. Should the state adopt additional guidelines to clarify the parameters of First Amendment free speech for school teachers, or are the Bradley Johnson banner cases isolated incidents?
- Bradley Johnson v. Poway Unified School District (Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals)
- FindLaw Supreme Court Center: First Amendment (FindLaw)
- Court says teacher has no right to banners referring to God (Los Angeles Times)
- Teacher Fired Over Facebook Comments (FindLaw's Law & Daily Life)
- Court Upholds Students' Free Speech Rights in Sleepover Pics Case (FindLaw's Seventh Circuit blog)