If you were a high school teacher, what posters and inspirational items would you put up in your classroom? What if at your school, “no posters” was not an option, and you were expected to make some personal statement to your students and peers? The next question you may have to ask is what are the limits your employer can place on what you say? What rights does the administration itself have in this scenario?
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is considering this very question in Johnson v. Poway Unified School District, a case that could provide answers not only to this question but to a number of others bearing on what First Amendment free speech rights teachers possess. The Court of Appeals heard oral argument on May 5, 2011, and will probably issue a decision soon.
The facts of Johnson are as follows. The Poway Unified School District allowed teachers to place posters and other materials on the walls of their classrooms conveying messages completely of the individual teacher’s choosing. Examples included anti-war materials and posters of rock musicians Nirvana, Bruce Springsteen, and the Beatles. Some of the materials appeared to pertain to religion, including: a 35 to 40-foot long string of Tibetan prayer flags with writings in Sanskrit and images of Buddha; a poster of John Lennon and the lyrics to the song “Imagine” (which at one point asks listeners to imagine a world with “no religion”); a poster of Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama; and posters of Muslim minister Malcolm X.
Bradley Johnson, a math teacher, maintained in his classroom two banners, each approximately seven feet wide and two feet tall. One, striped in red, white and blue, contained the phrases: “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” “God Bless America,” and “God Shed His Grace On Thee.” A second banner quoted from the Declaration of Independence by stating “All Men Are Created Equal, They Are Endowed By Their Creator,” and placed the word “Creator” in all uppercase letters. Johnson had taught at the school for 30 years. The first banner had been in his classroom for 25 years, and the second for 17 years.
There was no evidence of any student complaints about Johnson’s banners. A fellow math teacher in 2006, however, asked the administration why Johnson was allowed to have them. The administration, apparently concerned that the banners infringed principles of separation of church and state, followed up and ultimately ordered Johnson to take the banners down. He responded by bringing a federal court lawsuit, arguing that the administration’s order infringed his free speech rights and other rights. The trial court agreed with Johnson, and granted his motion for summary judgment.
The Court of Appeals must now make a choice that may have widespread effects on how to interpret the free speech rights of educators, and how far management rights in this area extend.