A lawsuit filed by a Shelby County Schools (SCS) principal placed on leave for warning students about social media censorship is making steady progress. As The Tennessee Star reported in January, Cordova High School Principal Barton Thorne had lectured students during a weekly “principal’s message” on the importance of free speech and the marketplace of ideas following the Capitol Hill riot, which he condemned.
Shelby County Board of Education (SCBE) reinstated Thorne the day that he filed the lawsuit against them. The Liberty Justice Center (LJC) is representing Thorne in the case, Thorne v. Shelby County Board of Education. In the lawsuit, Thorne alleged that SCBE violated his right to free speech and had damaged his career, reputation, and family through their response to the public and media.
On April 9, a little over a month after the lawsuit was filed, SCBE filed a motion to dismiss Thorne’s lawsuit. They argued that Thorne failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Further, SCBE responded that Thorne lacked rights to free speech while exercising his official duties, citing the 2005 Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos.
“[W]hen employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline,” read the SCOTUS opinion.
SCBE counsel also argued that Thorne’s administrative leave was in response to multiple complaints from “employees, parents, and/or students.” They cited a pending investigation that they claimed was ongoing while Thorne was placed on leave. Contents of that investigation aren’t included within the court documents.
The Star inquired with LJC whether the contents or results of the investigation were shown to Thorne upon his reinstatement. Daniel Suhr, LJC managing attorney and lead counsel on the case, told The Star that the only thing that Thorne ever received was the single page letter permitting his reinstatement with a warning.
“The fact that the ‘investigation’ ended the day this lawsuit was filed tells you everything you need to know,” stated Suhr.
In a response to SCBE’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit on May 14, the LJC said that Thorne’s message was rooted in basic American principles and aligned with Tennessee’s current social studies standards for high schools. They added that SCBE had caused suffering, citing how district officials admonished Thorne to the public and media, and issued a negatively worded warning letter in his personnel file.
On May 28, SCBE counsel said in a response that Thorne was only pursuing legal action because he’d been placed on leave for too long, and again referenced their internal investigation.
“He is unhappy because the time he spent on paid administrative leave pending an internal investigation by his employer was longer than what he expected,” read the response.
SCBE reiterated that First Amendment protections don’t apply to Thorne.
Suhr told The Star that freedom of speech protection does apply to Thorne in this case. He cited the 1969 SCOTUS decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School.
“The irony of this case all along has been that Principal Thorne’s free speech rights were violated for a talk he gave about the importance of free speech! The First Amendment protects all of us, including public school employees. As the Supreme Court said in the famous Tinker case, ‘It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,'” said Suhr. “We often focus on student free speech rights, but forget the ‘or teachers’ part. Here, the main problem is that the District suspended and investigated Principal Thorne for speech that was clearly in line with Tennessee social studies standards, mainstream civics curricula, and even resources recommended by SCS’s Superintendent.”
Read Thorne’s full homeroom message here:
– – –