A pair of cafeteria workers in Brownsburg say the Brownsburg Community School Corporation violated their First Amendment rights when it punished them for expressing their opinions on social media.
The two workers and the ACLU of Indiana filed a lawsuit against the school system in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana earlier this week.
Tina Gracey and Brenda Farnsworth allege the school took unconstitutional disciplinary action against them for posting in a Facebook group called “Brownsburg Residents for Fiscal Responsibility.” The group criticized two proposed referenda, one of which was seeking a $96 million property tax hike, that were ultimately defeated in the May 2015 election.
The complaint says the school corporation gave Gracey and Farnsworth written warnings and told them they could be “subject to termination if they continued to post their opinions to online forums.”
“I don’t want to lose my job because of this. I’m not asking for money,” Gracey told the Indianapolis Star. “I just want it to be made public that people are allowed to speak out against things like this.”
The ACLU also says the women made their comments on their own time and from their own electronic devices.
“There is no justification for the school corporation’s attempts to silence its workers’ speech on issues of public interest and concern,” ACLU of Indiana senior staff attorney Gavin Rose said in a statement. “The First Amendment protects everyone’s right to express their opinions, and online forums are a means of such expression.”
The school system claims the women violated its staff social media policy, which the lawsuit wants to stop the school system from enforcing.
The policy says staff will “avoid making defamatory statements about the school district.” It also states, “When posting to your personal blog, website, or social media site, be sure you note that the information is representative of your views and opinions and not necessarily the views and opinions of BCSC.”
BCSC Superintendent Jim Snapp says the district is “keenly aware” of its employees’ freedom of speech.
And Snapp says legal experts have reviewed the district’s social media policy. He adds the district has been “very consistent” in enforcing the policy.
“When we’ve had other employees violate [the policy], those have been addressed in a very similar matter across the board,” he says. “Our policy mirrors not only what I’ve seen in other school corporations, but in other businesses as well.”
In addition to halting enforcement of the social media policy, the lawsuit wants the disciplinary actions removed from the women’s records.