Keith Allison, a Title I tutor at Green Local Schools in Smithville, Ohio, was terminated from his position with the District after he published a Facebook post that the School District deemed offensive. The post, made from Mr. Allison’s personal computer outside of school hours, included a photograph of a local dairy farm that used crates to separate calves from their mothers, along with an explanation about the inhumane practices involved in dairy farming. According to the School District, the dairy farm pictured in the photograph Mr. Allison posted was owned by a parent of a student at the school. Following complaints from that family, the School District removed Mr. Allison’s one-year contract from the school board agenda prior to the board voting on its renewal.
Since the 1960s, it has been settled law that the speech of public employees, and especially public school teachers, is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Under the First Amendment, a government employer may only discipline an employee for out-of-work speech if the employer has a legitimate interest in regulating the speech that strongly outweighs the employee’s interest in exercising his constitutional rights. In this case, whatever interest the School District may have had in preventing Mr. Allison’s private animal advocacy could not have outweighed his interest in exercising his First Amendment rights.
Because Mr. Allison’s speech was on a topic of political and social concern to the public at large, it is afforded the highest level of constitutional protection. Given the political nature of Mr. Allison’s speech, and the fact that it occurred in his capacity as a private citizen, the School District would need to show a highly compelling purpose for the disciplinary action taken against Mr. Allison, and it provided no such reason.
We sent a demand letter to the Green Local Board of Education on December 10, 2014. Following negotiations, the School Board did offer Mr. Allison a new job at a different school in the district, which he accepted. However, the job is significantly different from his previous job. Additionally, the School Board has not offered Mr. Allison adequate back pay, and it has not clarified or addressed issues with district policies governing employees’ free speech rights. As a result, on March 4, 2015, we filed a federal lawsuit on Mr. Allison’s behalf in the Northern District of Ohio in Akron. The case was assigned to Judge Polster. A telephone conference between the parties and Judge Polster was held on March 10, 2015, and another on March 24.
On April 14, 2015, we reached a settlement agreement with the School Board, and the case was voluntarily dismissed. The settlement includes a statement by the Board acknowledging its employees’ right to speak out on matters of public concern. Additionally, the Board agreed to a financial settlement of $17,500, of which $10,820.74 was allocated to Allison to compensate him for back salary and pension contributions and $6,679.26 was allocated for attorneys’ fees and costs.