(CN) - A man who lost his teaching job after making public statements about his district while heading an educators' association may have a case for retaliation, the 11th Circuit ruled.
Richard Hubbard's remarks had come after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), a regional accreditation body, issued a report in early 2008 that criticized the school district for Clayton County, Ga., and various members of its local board of education.
As then president of the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE), a trade association that represents public educators in Georgia, Hubbard had said: "If the allegations in the SACS report are true, then for the good of the children and the system, individuals on the board should step down.'"
While working for the GAE, Hubbard remained technically an employee of the school district from which he was recruited, which in this case was Clayton. School districts often entered such "on-loan" arrangements with the GAE so that their employees could continue to accrue employment benefits, Hubbard claimed in a federal complaint.
After Hubbard's remarks in February 2008, however, Hubbard and three other board employees with "on-loan" arrangements received letters directing them to return to the classrooms and receive working assignments.
The other affected employees made arrangements to take leave instead, but Hubbard said the board of education refused to let him rescind his resignation when he learned of the possibility to take leave.
Hubbard claimed the school district violated his First Amendment rights in not letting him return to school since he had allegedly made the 2008 statements strictly in his capacity as the trade association's president, not as a school employee.
Though a federal judge found that Hubbard had acted in his official capacity as a school district employee and was not entitled to First Amendment protection, the 11th Circuit reversed on June 27.
"Hubbard was acting in his capacity as spokesperson for the GAE at the Georgia State Capitol" when he spoke on Feb. 15, 2008, a three-judge appellate panel found.
Since Hubbard was actually on leave from the district, he was only technically an employee of the school district at the time he spoke to the press, the Atlanta-based federal appeals court found
Since he had spoken as a private citizen, in his capacity as president of a trade association, Hubbard's speech was entitled to First Amendment protection, the ruling states.
Government employers have heightened interests in controlling their employees' official communications, which have official consequences, Judge R. Lanier Anderson wrote for the panel.
Since Hubbard's speech cannot reasonably be attributed to the school district, however, the employer in this case has no legitimate interest in regulating Hubbard's speech, the ruling continues.
The school district failed to persuade the court that Hubbard's official duties for the GAE could qualify as official duties for the district.