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Principal Can Be Fired for Speaking out to Save Her School

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on July 07, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When we think of free speech in schools, it's often student speech that comes to mind. However, plenty of free speech disputes arise from school employees' public disagreements with their administration. Those cases often involve the balancing of a state employee's interest in participating in public debate against a government employer's interest in an efficient work force.

Last week, the Tenth Circuit ruled that the government's interest outweighs a principal's right to speak out against the closing of a school. In that case, Joyce Rock, a principal in New Mexico, sued after she was fired for publicly opposing the closing of her alternative high school. Her termination was justified, the Tenth said, given the school district's need to speak in a uniform voice on the closing.

Speaking Out to Save a School

Career Prep High School in Shiprock, New Mexico, where Rock was principal, is an alternative high school focused on student-parents, suspended students and other vulnerable populations. In May, 2013, it was scheduled to close as a cost-saving measure. At a public meeting, Rock spoke out against the closure, questioning whether the students could succeed in a different setting.

Rock saved the school, but she lost her job. After she was terminated, she filed a 1983 suit, arguing that the school district had illegally retaliated against her for exercising her free speech rights.

Principal's Interests Don't Trump School's

As a government employee, Rock had to show that her free speech interests outweighed the state's interest as her employer. That she was unable to do, according to the Tenth. If the government, as an employer, had an adequate justification for treating the public employee differently from the rest of the public, then there can be no retaliation claim. Such justifications include the risk that an employee's public speech will have a negative impact on working relationships requiring personal loyalty and confidence.

Here, the court found that Rock's position as principal required her to publicly support the school district, even if it meant the closing of her school. Rock was not, after all, exposing corruption or unlawful conduct, the Tenth noted. She was simply speaking out against the policy adopted by her superiors. Her interest in freely expressing those views was overridden by the school district's need to have high-ranking employees "speak publicly with a single voice on policy matters."

For that reason, the Tenth rejected Rock's retaliation claim. It should be noted, however, that although Rock was fired for speaking out, she was also awarded Principal of the Year by the New Mexico Association of Secondary School Principals.

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