LOS ANGELES, Calif. —The Rutherford Institute has filed a First Amendment lawsuit on behalf of a Los Angeles substitute teacher who was fired after making controversial statements at an “Occupy Los Angeles” rally in October 2011. The complaint, filed in the Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles, alleges that the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) violated Patricia McAllister’s free speech rights when it fired her for making statements in her personal capacity unrelated to her employment or the school district, while she was off school grounds, and related to the causes of the global financial crisis.
“The courts have rightly recognized that the purpose of the First Amendment was and remains the protection of the expression of unpopular sentiments from governmental reprisals or censorship,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “We cannot allow the government to retaliate against someone simply because that person voiced a controversial opinion. If we allow this school district’s actions to go unchallenged, we enable the government to continue its sanitization of our free speech, discarding anything deemed disturbing or offensive.”
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 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 informed that her employment with the district had been 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.”
In December 2011, McAllister’s claim for damages, which had been filed with the District, was rejected. Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute subsequently intervened in the matter, asking the School District to rehire McAllister and compensate her for the wages she lost as a result of the termination. In filing suit against the school district, Institute attorneys pointed out that public employees do not forfeit their right 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. Moreover, because McAllister’s statement related to the causes of the global financial crisis, they were on a matter of public concern and protected by the First Amendment. Institute attorneys argue 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.