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Do several Ashford High School teachers whose text chain was leaked on social media have a defense for freedom of speech?

Probably not, according to a First Amendment expert.

Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum Institute in Washington, D.C., said Thursday there are limited instances when a government employee’s speech is protected under the First Amendment.

Six Ashford High School teachers were placed on administrative leave Monday after a student leaked messages from a teacher’s phone to several individuals.

The screen recording of messages, which included commentary about students’ sex lives and intelligence — using the “n” word in one instance — was made public on Facebook Nov. 14.

Without making a legal judgment, Nott, a former litigator, said after reading background information about the leaked group messages she does not believe the case passes the Pickering-Connick test, which refers to the longstanding examination used by courts to determine whether a public employer violated an employee’s free-expression rights.

The test asks several questions, starting with deciding if the employees were speaking on matters of public concern.

“I’m not sure this would qualify as a matter of public concern. It’s definitely outside of their job duties,” Nott said. “I’ve seen other cases where I’ve seen teachers fired for something they posted on social media where they’ve made racist comments. I can’t recall cases where they’ve won.

“There’s a component of their job involving engaging with their community. If they’ve lost that trust, they’re not able to do their jobs as their supposed to.”

She noted that the comment made in the leaked messages would probably negatively affect the teachers’ abilities to do the jobs they were hired for judging from the public outrage from students and members of the community.

“These weren’t public statements, but it is now a public conversation,” Nott said. “The information is one way or another public. It’s a point of concern when a private conversation is made public when it was not intended to be, but I don’t think it will help their case. I don’t think our current legal framework really has mechanisms that protect things of this nature.”

Nott added that she is only aware of the public details of the Ashford teachers’ case and that her comments are based on case precedents regarding First Amendment protections for public employees, but are not formally weighing in on the direction of the case.

School board action

On Monday night, the Houston County Board of Education met in a brief executive session to “indirectly” discuss the case, but it took no action, opting to allow the investigation to continue.

Houston County Schools Superintendent David Sewell previously scheduled a hearing date for Wednesday, but canceled it to give the teachers’ legal counsel more time to prepare their defense.

A representative from the Alabama Education Association confirmed that the organization was representing the teachers.

Another date to hear their cases has not been scheduled as of Thursday, but the next work session and board meeting is scheduled for Dec. 9 at 5 p.m. at the central office boardroom.

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