JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A Duval County teacher is demanding a letter of apology and $300,000 from the local school board over what he believes are attempts at censorship of free speech.
According to a report on Jacksonville.com, teacher Chris Guerrieri wrote a blog that was consistently critical of the school board. In September 2016, he was sent a cease-and-desist letter from the city’s general council on behalf of the school board — specifically one of its members, Cheryl Grymes, whom Guerrieri had accused of acting based on conflicts of interest. The letter threatened legal action if Guerrieri did not stop.
Following the incident, the some members of the board have stated that the letter was out of line and have openly discussed retracting it. However, interim interactions have made reconciliation more difficult. Guerrieri has had multiple arguments online with board member Scott Shine. These entanglements have only served to make the situation worse, and Guerrieri’s lawyer, Ryan J. Andrews, is including defamation from Shine as part of the cause for potential legal action.
“It can be difficult to predict the outcome of some of these cases … these cases are often very dependent on background. Such as, does the plaintiff seem credible? Does he have a history of overreacting?” Erika Proctor, a lawyer with experience in suits based around free speech, told the Florida Record about the feasibility of Guerrieri’s action.
Guerrieri has already been threatened with punitive blowback for his online criticism. The school board has not acted, but has informed Guerrieri he would be suspended without pay for a week if he continued his behavior.
“The school board absolutely acted too quickly, I can say that … the issue is free speech, and they tried to stop Guerrieri,” Proctor said. “Juries have been known to sometimes be very strongly for free speech, sometimes too much maybe. If that is going to be enough to earn a legal punishment, I don’t know.”
Guerrieri’s claim was further fueled when Andrews alleged that the board had discussed what he called an “anti-Guerrieri rule” to limit criticism in the future, according to the Jacksonville.com report. Andrews stated that this was a further act of defamation of his client and continued negligence of the First Amendment rights of the district’s teachers. The school board has not commented on this specific allegation.
Public records revealed that Guerrieri was arrested for driving under the influence, and received reprimands for comments considered profane and inappropriate on a news site.
Proctor reiterated that Guerrieri's character would really determine the case.
“A jury will determine the validity of his claims based on how he seems … drunk driving can really hurt someone in his spot,” she said. “It makes you think maybe he is overreacting … is his character the kind of person who would overreact to some light criticism?”
The school board has until Feb. 10 to give Guerrieri his apology and money or be sued, according to Jacksonville.com.