LOS ANGELES, Calif.—Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have come to the defense of a California substitute teacher who was discharged for political comments she made at an “Occupy Los Angeles” rally in October 2011. In a letter to the Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), Institute attorneys assert that the firing of Patricia McAllister in response to her comments violated her right to freedom of speech under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. The letter points out that McAllister’s statements were not related to her employment or the school district, were made while she was off school grounds, and related to the causes of the global financial crisis, and so were constitutionally protected. Institute attorneys assert that McAllister should not have been terminated as a result of her political speech and demand that the School District rehire her and compensate her for the wages she lost as a result of the termination.
“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 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. In their letter to Superintendent Deasy, Rutherford Institute attorneys point 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. 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 point out that while LAUSD certainly had the prerogative to criticize and disagree with the views expressed by McAllister, “[t]hat the views she expressed are unpopular is no justification for the punishment she received[.]”