CLEVELAND—The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) Foundation filed a lawsuit today on behalf of Smithville resident and teacher Keith Allison against the Board of Education of Green Local School District.
“Keith Allison has a right to free speech on his own time,” said Freda Levenson, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio. “A school district cannot punish an employee simply because a member of the community objects to what the employee has to say.”
Allison was removed as a Title I tutor at Green Elementary School by the school district in August 2014 for sharing his personal beliefs about the treatment of animals on dairy farms on his Facebook page. The message was posted on the teacher’s personal time, off school grounds. The reason given for his termination by Superintendent Judy Robinson was that it offended the owner of a farm depicted in a photograph on the post, even though the identity of the landowner and the location of the farm was not specified. According to the school district’s policy, teachers are not permitted to speak on matters of public concern, outside of work, if a member of the community disagrees with the content of that speech. Allison then sought help from the PETA Foundation, which referred him to the ACLU for legal representation.
“Prohibiting teachers from contributing to community debate harms teachers and the community alike,” said Joseph Mead, an ACLU cooperating attorney representing Allison. “The school district’s policy clearly violates the First Amendment. Where’s the civics lesson in that?”
In December, the ACLU sent a letter to the Green Local Board of Education reminding the school district that teachers have a First Amendment right to engage in free speech. The ACLU urged the school board to reinstate Allison to his former position, with back pay, and to issue an apology. Although Allison was rehired the following month for a position at the school district’s middle school, the board refused to modify its policy on employee speech—forcing
Allison and his fellow educators to the unconstitutional choice between their jobs and speaking out on issues that matter to them and the community. The board also refused to pay Allison for the months that it had deprived him of his salary. The complaint challenges both the school district’s initial decision to punish Allison for his speech and its broad ban on speech conducted outside of work hours.
Gabriel Walters, counsel for the PETA Foundation, said, "PETA supports teachers who speak up for animal rights both in and out of the classroom. Like everyone in America, Keith Allison should have the right to freely express himself on his own time, and that includes encouraging kindness to animals.”