Teacher Can Pursue Constitutional Claims Challenging Her Dismissal Over Anti-Gay Facebook Postings

A New Jersey federal judge has ruled that a Union County public school teacher who lost her job after posting anti-gay comments to her Facebook page may continue her lawsuit against the school board and various officials on claims of constitutional violations.  Although District Judge Kevin McNulty dismissed several of Jenye Viki Knox’s claims, the central constitutional claims survived the defendants’ motion to dismiss in Knox v. Union Township Board of Education, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21536 (D.N.J., Feb. 23, 2015).

Knox was employed as a special education teacher at Union Township High School, and was awarded tenure in 2003.  Knox is African-American, a fact that is relevant due to the race discrimination charges in her complaint.  While employed at the high school, she served as academic advisor for The Seekers Club, a Christian Bible study group, and she was also the advisor for the school’s Gospel Choir.  Knox is an ordained minister as well, a fact known by the school authorities named as defendants in her complaint.

Knox took offense to a billboard in the school and posted comments on her Facebook page in September 2011.  According to Judge McNulty’s summary of her allegations, she “posted a public message on Facebook stating that a school billboard that promoted alternative lifestyles did not accord with her religious beliefs.”  She posted these comments from her home computer.  “Facebook users commented on Knox’s post, and Knox responded.  Her responses included an explanation of her religious objections to the billboard; statements about the Bible and homosexuality; characterizations of homosexuality as a sin and disobedience to God; and descriptions of salvation through Jesus Christ.  Knox’s comments prompted racist posts from other users, who are not identified,” wrote the judge.

The ongoing conversation prompted by Knox’s postings soon came to the attention of school authorities, who reacted swiftly early in October.  “Without prior notice,” wrote McNulty, “Know was removed from her classroom.  The removal took place during school hours, in front of her students and other teachers.” she was taken to a small room and interrogated about the Facebook posts by the school board’s attorney, the Assistant Superintendent, and the Vice President of the teachers union.  “She alleges that she ‘was then pressured by these individuals to say that her religious beliefs were wrong, and felt extremely intimidated by them.’  She alleges that the individuals spoke critically about her religious beliefs and her expression of them.  Those individuals did not discuss or express ‘dismay’ about any of the racist third-party comments to her Facebook posts,” which she alleges was “tacit approval of the racism that she was subject to.”

Although she was allowed to return to her classroom, she was removed again a few days later, in the presence of students, and questioned against, this time by the Superintendent, the Principal of the school, and the union president.  In this meeting she was told that she was suspended with pay,” which Knox alleges is what the “racists” had advocated in their postings on Facebook.  She characterized the suspension as “part of the ongoing pattern of intimidation the Board leveled against [her] as a result of her religious beliefs and/or race,” and that the Board was attempting to “undermine” her “reputation” and “humiliate” her.  After she was told that she was suspended, she was escorted back to her classroom to gather her personal belongs and escorted from the building, against in the presence of students and other teachers, which she said caused her “further humiliation and embarrassment.”  The Board held a public meeting about the situation on October 18.

On December 23, the Board’s attorney notified Knox that her suspension would henceforth be without pay and that the Board was filing charges to remove her tenure.  Knox claims that her health deteriorated after these experiences, and she resigned her position on June 30.  She later characterized this as a “constructive discharge” and made it part of her lawsuit.  Four months after she resigned, she agreed to a negotiated settlement of the tenure proceedings, under which she agreed to resign her tenured position and to refund the school the money she was paid during the paid suspension period.  The parties agreed to forego a formal hearing and the Board and an Administrative Law Judge approved the settlement, which was finally approved by the state Commissioner of Education, which involved dismissal of the Tenure Charge.  Knox never filed a grievance under the union contract, and never filed a discrimination charge with state or federal agencies.

On October 2, 2013, she filed her lawsuit against the School Board and several individual defendants who were involved with her suspension and discharge, stating ten distinct claims, four of which Judge McNulty dismissed in response to the School Board’s motion.  At the heart of the School Board’s motion was the claim that the court should defer to the settlement that had been negotiated, but McNulty pointed out that the School Board could have negotiated for a waiver of claims by Knox as part of the settlement, but had not done so.

Although certain claims were precluded because of the settlement, the court found that her claims of denial of due process of law, violations of her rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, violation of equal protection of the laws and violation of the New Jersey Free Exercise and Enjoyment of Religion Clauses all survived the motion to dismiss, as did her claim of a violation of the 1st Amendment establishment clause.  The race discrimination claims she brought were dismissed without prejudice to the filing of a properly supported motion to amend the complaint.  Judge McNulty had found that the factual allegations in the complaint were insufficient to support a race discrimination claim, but was willing to give Knox an opportunity to plead the necessary facts if possible.  McNulty granted the motion to dismiss a claim of “constructive discharge,” finding that there is no independent cause of action by that name in New Jersey (although constructive discharge is a theory that can be used by an employee who claims to have been forced to quit because of her race, religion, political views, and so forth).  He also dismissed her claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, but against without prejudice to the right to amend her complaint with more specific factual allegations.

The School District’s attorney, Jonathan Cohen, expressed pleasure at the dismissal of four of the 10 counts of the complaint.  Knox’s attorney, Demetrios Stratis, pointed out that the claims that survived the motion were “the thrust of our case” and argued that when Knox spoke as an individual, from home on her Facebook page, “she certainly is entitled to do that.  Just because she became a teacher, it doesn’t mean she gives that up.”

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