Board’s removal of board member from vice president position ruled constitutional
June 30, 2010
A school board’s vote to remove one of its members as board vice president because of his public criticism of the district’s superintendent was not prohibited by the First Amendment. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal court with jurisdiction over Oregon, held that the board’s action did not prevent the member from performing his board functions and that the First Amendment does not shield board members from the results of the political process, such as the removal from a leadership position.
A Washington school district board member was elected to serve as board vice president by his fellow board members. Like Oregon districts, all board members in this district are publicly elected, but the board votes to elect board officers. The board vice president had been a persistent critic of the district’s superintendent, consistently voting against renewing his contract. After casting the lone dissent in a 2007 vote, the vice president was quoted in a local newspaper explaining his lack of trust in the superintendent. The board later voted to remove him as its vice president because of his opposition to the superintendent. The former board vice president sued the other members, the superintendent, and the district alleging he was retaliated against for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech. In reaching its decision, the court evaluated whether the board’s action would inhibit a fellow board member from continuing to speak out. The court reasoned this case was different than a typical First Amendment case because the challenged action was taken by his fellow board members in the political arena. The court found the board member’s removal as vice president was only a minor indignity that did not affect his rights as a publicly elected official. Next, the court found public officials are expected to cast votes against members whose views are different than their own. And last, the other members also have a protected right to vote their conscience on issues facing the district.
Blair v. Bethel Sch. Dist., 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 12081 (9th Cir. Wash. Jun. 14, 2010).
Take away: Like other legislative bodies, school boards do not violate the First Amendment when some members cast their votes in opposition to other members for partisan, political, or ideological reasons. However, the court cautioned that the retaliatory acts of publicly elected officials against other officials may be unconstitutional if it would block an elected official from holding office.
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