New Jersey Teacher Settles Lawsuit with School District Alleging Scapegoating for Censorship Controversy

New Jersey is an “at will employment” state, meaning that employers can fire an employee for any reason, or no reason at all, provided that they do not violate the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) or other applicable laws or regulations. Private employers are subject to laws like the NJLAD and any contractual relationships they have with their workers. Public employers, including many government entities at the city, county, and state level in New Jersey, may also be bound by constitutional protections for due process and civil rights. A recent settlement between a New Jersey public school district and a former teacher illustrates how public employers may have additional obligations to their employees. The former teacher alleged that the school district scapegoated her for a controversy over the alleged censorship of a student’s yearbook photo. She claimed violations of her free speech and due process rights.

Both the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions protect certain civil rights against infringement by the government. This may include infringement of employees’ civil rights by government employers. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right to free speech. Section 6 of the New Jersey Constitution specifically states that “[e]very person may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects.” The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees due process and equal protection at all levels of government.

These protections would not be worth much without some method of enforcement. The New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA) allows individuals to file suit against the government for civil rights violations by government agents or employees. See N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:6-2. This law is similar to § 1983, the federal statute that allows lawsuits for deprivation of civil rights.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit described earlier worked as a teacher for the defendant. She also served as the yearbook advisor. In 2017, a student posed for his yearbook photo wearing a t-shirt that bore the name and campaign slogan of the then-U.S. president. When the yearbook was distributed to students at the end of the school year, the graphic and text on the t-shirt had been erased. The school superintendent reportedly notified parents that the school was investigating the matter as a possible First Amendment violation.

The blame eventually fell on the plaintiff, who was suspended and removed as yearbook advisor. She claimed that she was directed to edit the student’s photo by a school administrator. She also claimed that she tried to speak to the media, but was prevented from doing so by a “media policy” in the teacher’s union collective bargaining agreement that she called a “gag order.” This, she argued, prevented her from defending herself against widespread condemnation, allegedly including death threats.

The plaintiff filed suit against the school district and the superintendent in 2019. She claimed violations of the NJCRA, “civil rights hostile work environment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She also sought a declaratory judgment finding that the media policy is unconstitutional prior restraint. In March 2021, the parties announced that they had settled the lawsuit for $325,000.

The employment attorneys at the Resnick Law Group can help you if you are involved in a dispute with your employer in New Jersey or New York. Please contact us online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997 today to schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our knowledgeable and experienced team.

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