MIAMI - An employee's efforts to transform a public school into a charter school is not protected by the First Amendment, a federal court has affirmed.
The U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit supported the original ruling on Aug. 10, in a case involving the Miami-Dade County School Board.
Dr. Alberto Fernandez and Henny Cristobol were both employed at the Neva King Cooper Educational Center, when they were disciplined for advocating in favor of charter schools, according to the claim. The pair sued in federal court, alleging that their First Amendment right to free speech was violated.
The school board countered that Fernandez and Cristobol’s pro-charter school efforts were not the work of private citizens but of government employees.
Neva King is a public school that works with disabled students. Fernandez served as the principal while Cristobol was vice principal. Their lawsuit hinges on free speech laws and the rights of public employees to speak for themselves.
In 2011, Fernandez and Cristobol decided that the school would run better as a charter school. They held faculty meetings and spoke to staff members about the possible change.
On Feb. 2, 2012, Fernandez asked the Neva King’s Educational Excellence School Advisory Council to vote on the idea.
The Miami-Dade County School Board reacted to the plaintiffs’ efforts by disciplining them, prompting the lawsuit.
After the school board learned about what Fernandez and Cristobol were doing, it launched an investigation. The court found that “the investigations revealed that the Administrators had met regularly with faculty and staff during school hours to discuss charter conversion… Fernandez and Cristobol violated School Board policies relating to ethical standards, staff interactions, internet use and safety, and staff email use.”
The plaintiffs' suit was unsuccessful because the school board was able to demonstrate that their actions represented the school. Fernandez and Cristobol spoke to staff members about the proposed charter school conversion in their official rather than their personal capacity.