An elementary-school teacher who was dismissed after telling her class on the eve of the Iraq war that "I honk for peace" lost a U.S. Supreme Court appeal Monday.
The justices, without comment, denied a hearing to Deborah Mayer, who had appealed lower-court decisions upholding an Indiana school district's refusal to renew her contract in June 2003. The most-recent ruling, by a federal appeals court in Chicago, said teachers in public schools have no constitutional right to express personal opinions in the classroom.
A teacher's speech is "the commodity she sells to an employer in exchange for her salary," the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in January. "The Constitution does not enable teachers to present personal views to captive audiences against the instructions of elected officials."
The appellate ruling is binding only on federal courts in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, but is one of a series of recent decisions taking a narrow view of free speech for teachers, other government employees and students.
The Supreme Court ruled in June that an Alaska principal was entitled to suspend a student who had unfurled a banner outside the school reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus," a message the principal said promoted drug use. Last year the court ruled that government employees are not protected by the First Amendment when speaking at work about job-related controversies, a ruling that the appeals court applied to teachers in Mayer's case.
Mayer, who now teaches sixth grade in Florida, was distraught.
"I don't know why anybody would want to be a teacher if you can be fired for saying four little words," she said Monday. "I'm supposed to teach the Constitution to my students. I'm supposed to tell them that the Constitution guarantees free speech. How am I going to justify that?"
Mayer, a teacher for more than 20 years, was in her first year at a Bloomington, Ind., school district when the events occurred.
She said her class of fourth- through sixth-graders was discussing an article in the children's edition of Time magazine, part of the school-approved curriculum, on protests against U.S. preparations for an invasion of Iraq in January 2003. When a student asked her whether she took part in demonstrations, Mayer said, she replied that she blew her horn whenever she saw a "Honk for Peace" sign, and that peaceful solutions should be sought before going to war.
After a parent complained, the principal ordered Mayer never to discuss the war or her political views in class. Her contract was not renewed at the end of the school year.
The district said she had been dismissed because of poor performance and complaints by parents. Mayer said that her previous evaluations had been good and that the district had solicited the complaints after the fact.
The appeals court that ruled on her case assumed she had been fired for her comments and said the school had the right to punish her for defying its policy, just as it could fire a creationist who refused to teach evolution. Mayer asked for a rehearing, saying no such policy had existed when she made her comments, but the court turned her down.
Similar cases have arisen in California, where federal courts have allowed schools to discipline teachers for expressing dissident views if the policies they violated were clearly explained in advance.
In one such ruling, in 2005, a federal judge in San Jose rejected a Cupertino teacher's argument that his principal had violated his freedom of speech by prohibiting him from using outside religious materials in history lessons.
In papers filed with the Supreme Court, Mayer's former school district described her as a "failing teacher" who had manufactured a controversy about free speech to try to keep her job.
"Public employees, including primary and secondary school teachers such as Ms. Mayer, simply do not have a constitutional right to interject their own opinions when speaking as employees," the district's lawyer said.
The case is Mayer vs. Monroe County Community School Corp., 06-1657. E-mail Bob Egelko at email@example.com.
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle