SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. —Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have asked the California Supreme Court to reverse a lower court ruling that prevents a Los Angeles public school employee from suing for an alleged violation of her constitutional right to free speech. Institute attorneys filed the petition on behalf of former substitute teacher Patricia McAllister, who was fired in October 2011 after making controversial statements at an “Occupy Los Angeles” rally. Declaring that the Los Angeles Unified School District and its Superintendent are not subject to a First Amendment lawsuit, the California Court of Appeal dismissed the case, leaving McAllister without any forum for vindicating her fundamental right to freedom of speech. In challenging the appeals court’s ruling, Institute attorneys warn that a judgment against McAllister could have far-reaching ramifications for all California school employees, stripping them of their First Amendment protections if they are disciplined or discharged for engaging in unpopular political speech while off duty.
“It has been well established that individuals do not forfeit their constitutional rights by accepting employment with the government,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “It is our hope that the California Supreme Court will champion the First Amendment’s longstanding protections for unpopular sentiments in the face of governmental reprisals or censorship.”
On October 12, 2011, Patricia McAllister attended an “Occupy Los Angeles” rally in the city’s downtown. During the rally, she was asked by a reporter for Reason.tv to make a statement about why she was at the rally. After identifying herself and noting that she was a teacher with Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), but was only representing herself, McAllister stated her belief that “Zionist Jews” were running the Federal Reserve and the big banks and needed to be removed. A video of her comments received wide circulation over the internet. Despite having been assured of employment as a substitute teacher for the 2011-2012 school year, a few days after the rally McAllister was called into the office of LAUSD’s director of employee relations and terminated. LAUSD Superintendent John E. Deasy subsequently issued a statement about the firing acknowledging that the statements were made by McAllister in her private capacity and that the law is very protective of the speech rights of public employees while off duty, but affirmed the firing because the District would not stand for behavior that is “disrespectful, intolerant or discriminatory.”
Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute subsequently intervened in the matter, asking the school district to rehire McAllister and compensate her for lost wages. In filing suit against the school district, Institute attorneys pointed out that public employees do not forfeit their rights to freedom of speech and are entitled to engage in expression on matters of public concern without fear that they will be subject to retaliation because the expression is unpopular. Institute attorneys argued that the school’s firing of McAllister violated her constitutional rights to free speech under the First Amendment and the California Constitution, constituted wrongful discharge under California law, and inflicted emotional and pecuniary harm upon McAllister for which she is entitled to compensation.
Affiliate attorney Julie Esposito is assisting The Rutherford Institute with the lawsuit.