Court Upholds District’s Termination Of Teacher For Anti-LGBTQ TikToks

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Oct 30, 2023

Kari MacRae, a teacher, operated a TikTok account where she liked, shared, posted or reposted six memes that contained themes of homophobia, transphobia, and racism.  MacRae agreed that some of these posts could be viewed as derogatory towards transgender people.  MacRae was preparing to run for the Bourne School Board, and posted a video to her TikTok account regarding her position as a school board candidate.  In that video, MacRae expressed her view that critical race theory should not be taught in public schools and that students should not be taught that they can choose whether or not they want to be a boy or a girl.  In May 2021, MacRae was elected to the Bourne School Board.

Two months later, MacRae was hired to teach in Hanover Public School District.  On the same day that the District in Hanover hired MacRae, the Bourne School Committee received a complaint regarding MacRae’s social media post.  On September 17, 2021, the Cape Cod Times published an article regarding MacRae’s activity on TikTok and her role on the Bourne School Committee.

On Monday, September 20, 2021, the District superintendent became aware of the article and social media posts and placed MacRae on paid administrative leave while the District conducted an investigation.  Nine days later, the District decided to terminate MacRae’s employment, citing the negative impact on student learning at the school.  MacRae sued, asserting a claim for First Amendment retaliation.

To evaluate a First Amendment retaliation claim, the Court set out a three-part test: (1) whether the employee spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern; (2) whether the balance of interests of the employee, as a citizen, in commenting on matters of public concern weighed more heavily than the interest of the state, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees; and (3) whether the employee has shown that the protected expression was a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse employment decision.

In applying the three-part test, the parties did not dispute that MacRae spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern.  Rather, the District argued that the decision to terminate MacRae’s speech was because it caused a disruption to teaching and learning, which justified her termination under the second factor.  MacRae argued that no actual disruption took place.

The Court concluded that the District provided ample evidence to show that MacRae’s speech had the potential to disrupt the District’s learning environment, even if actual disruption had not yet occurred.  The Court reasoned that there were students in MacRae’s classroom and within the District that embodied characteristics that MacRae’s posts appeared to denigrate.  At least some of MacRae’s speech was at odds with the District’s stated mission of providing a safe learning environment based on respectful relationships and promoting respect for human differences.

MacRae argued that she never shared her personal views in the classroom, and she made this speech outside of school, prior to her employment by the District.  The Court concluded that given the media coverage and controversy surrounding MacRae’s posts in Bourne, the District had a basis for being concerned about a risk to their operations.  Even if this speech occurred prior to her employment, it had the potential to disrupt her role as a public-facing employee of the District.

In balancing MacRae’s interests against the District’s interests, the Court concluded that the District was justified in its termination decision.  The Court reasoned that, as a public school teacher, MacRae had contact with the public, including students and parents who may have been members of groups that MacRae’s posts disparaged, which was part of her day-to-day responsibilities.  Colleagues recognized the posts as inconsistent with the District’s mission, and the District’s concerns about the posts were directly tied to a risk of disruption in student learning.  A greater risk of disruption arose from the growing media attention on these posts.  Finally, MacRae’s TikTok comments regarding transgender students were in direct conflict with the District’s mission, garnered media attention, and implicated concerns regarding the District’s ability to create a safe learning environment for all.  The Court granted summary judgment for the District.

MacRae v. Mattos (D.Mass. Sep. 25, 2023) 2023 U.S.Dist.LEXIS 170146.

Note: This case is noteworthy because the school district’s decision to terminate this teacher was upheld due to the potential for a disruption to student learning.  The teacher had only been working at the school for a few weeks when the videos went viral.

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