Teacher sues over firing for Facebook posts critical of ‘Leader in Me’ curriculum

A reading teacher fired earlier this year for Facebook posts that criticized a curriculum enhancement program used at her school has sued her former employer, claiming her firing violated her First Amendment rights.

Frankton-Lapel Community Schools admitted in Jennifer McWilliams’ lawsuit in federal court “that it terminated Plaintiff’s employment based on the untruthful information in her Facebook comments.” The school district made the acknowledgement in its response to McWilliams’ suit.

While serving as a Title I interventionist at Frankton Elementary School, McWilliams posted on her Facebook page comments critical of the Leader in Me curriculum that Frankton-Lapel schools in Madison County had adopted. Leader in Me claims on its website that more than 4,000 schools in 50 countries have adopted what it calls the program’s “evidence-based, comprehensive school improvement model — developed in partnership with educators — that empowers students with the leadership and life skills they need to thrive in the 21st century.”

Court records lay out the “Seven Habits” that it says are central to Leader in Me program instruction:

  1. Be proactive (you’re in charge).
  2. Begin with the end in mind (have a plan).
  3. Put first things first (work first, then play).
  4. Think win-win (everyone can win).
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood (listen before you talk).
  6. Synergize (together is better).
  7. Sharpen the saw (continuous self-improvement).

According to court records, McWilliams commented in response to another Facebook commenter regarding the program:

“We are in our third year and it literally has taken over EVERYTHING. The Language, awards, all bulletin-boards, the [sic] have a Committee dedicated to pushing this garbage into the community & children [sic] homes, and teachers are even being evaluated on how well they implement it. At this point I’m not even sure how you could opt your child out because it’s incorporated into everything we do. We are being advised & graded on how well we use the program & next we will mentor another school to begin using it. Parents have NO CLUE.”

Four days later, school officials met with McWilliams and gave her the option of resigning or being fired. Refusing to resign, she was terminated.

McWilliams sued in the Southern Indiana District Court in May, complaining school officials violated her constitutional rights under the First and 14th Amendments. She noted her comments were made at home on her own time on her own devices and dealt with a matter of public interest.

The school system argues it acted in good faith and did not discriminate or retaliate against McWilliams.

Earlier this month, Southern District of Indiana Judge J.P. Hanlon denied McWilliams’ motion for an injunction seeking reinstatement. McWilliams also seeks back pay, damages, attorney fees and costs.

While the judge noted neither side disputes that McWilliams’ Facebook post addressed a matter of public concern, the parties diverge as to whether her speech was constitutionally protected or whether it was false or made with reckless disregard for the truth. Precedent requires both tests be satisfied for public employees pressing First Amendment claims.

“The Court cannot conclude at this time on the record before it, which includes conflicting affidavits, that Ms. McWilliams knew the Facebook Comment was false or that she recklessly made the Facebook comment,” Hanlon wrote in denying an injunction. “Nor does the record allow the Court to conclude that the decision-makers at FLCS conducted ‘an adequate investigation’ and ‘reasonably believe[d][the Facebook Comment] to be false’ at the time the termination decision was made. … These are issues of fact that require further development of the record and weighing the credibility of witnesses.”

McWilliams is represented by the Bopp Law Firm of Terre Haute, which did not respond to a request for comment. Frankton-Lapel Schools are represented by Church Church Hittle + Antrim of Noblesville, which declined an IL request for comment.

The case is Jennifer McWilliams v. Frankton-Lapel Community Schools, 1:20-cv-01419.

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