The Constitutional Rights of Teachers



            The rights of teachers has brought about a lot of controversy because the topic of education is left completely up to the state to determine and rule on.  However, the state cannot take away a teacher’s constitutional rights.  There are certain topics that require more attention and control then others, such as freedom of religion or speech.  Freedom of speech, personal appearance, religion, political activity, and privacy are all constitutional rights, but somehow in the confines of the public school system these rights become gray and unclear as to the proper procedure taken by teachers.

            Freedom of speech is a guaranteed first amendment right, but occasionally there is confusion as to how much free speech a public school teacher has.  One case ruling that has helped clear up this confusion was Pickering v. Board of Education in 1968.  A teacher wrote a letter to the local newspaper criticizing the school board’s expenditure of funds on education versus athletic programs.  The teacher was dismissed because the letter was “detrimental to the best interests of the schools.”  The court asked whether or not it was a question of “maintaining either discipline by immediate superiors or harmony among coworkers” presented?  Did the statements impede the teacher’s classroom performance or the normal operation of the school?  The court decided that the interest of the school administration in limiting teachers’ opportunities to contribute to public debate is not significantly greater than its interest in limiting a similar contribution by any member of the general public (McCarthy 40).  These questions are now a standard criteria when it comes to teachers and freedom of speech.

            While Pickering was a more public statement, English teacher Bessie Givhan was dismissed from her job for a private conversation that she had with her principal.  In Givhan v. Western Line Consolidated School District (720-722), Givhan filed a complaint seeking reinstatement on the ground that not renewing her contract infringed on her right of free speech which is secured by the First and Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.  According to the principal, Givhan had allegedly made “petty and unreasonable demands” in a way he described as “insulting,” “hostile,” “loud,” and “arrogant.”  The Court found that Givhan had on two occasions made “demands” but they “were neither ‘petty’ nor ‘unreasonable’” therefore concluding that her termination had violated her first amendment rights  Givhan had in fact inquired about the employment policies and practices at the school which she thought to be racially discriminatory.  The District Court also concluded that the primary reason that Givhan’s contract was not renewed was her criticism of the school policies and practices.  The District Court determined that “freedom of speech is not lost to a public employee whether it involves public statements or private comments to a supervisor” (McCarthy 44).

            In East Hartford Education Association v. Board of Education (724-726), Richard Brimley, a public school teacher was reprimanded for failing to wear a tie while teaching his classes.  He claimed that he was deprived of his rights of free speech and privacy by being made to wear a tie.  Mr. Brimley made several claims as to the advantages of not wearing a tie while he was teaching:

a)     He wished to present himself to his students as a person who is not tied to establishment conformity.

b)     He wished to symbolically indicate to his students his association with the ideas of the generation to which those students belong including the rejection of many of the customs and values, and of social outlook, of the older generation.

c)      He felt that dress of this type enabled him to achieve closer rapport with his students, and thus enhanced his ability to teach.

Brimley claims that his tielessness is “symbolic speech” and is therefore covered by the First Amendment.  The court decided that the school board’s position must prevail claiming that Brimley’s claims of symbolic speech are vague and unfocused and do not weigh very heavily on the constitutional scale.  The school board’s dress policy promoted respect for authority and traditional values, as well as discipline in the classroom, by requiring teachers to dress in a professional manner and the court agreed with the board saying that they are justified in imposing this regulation.

            The Cooper v. Eugene School District No.4J (743-745) case introduced the idea of wearing religious garb during school while teaching.  Janet Cooper was a special education teacher when she got married and became a Sikh and wore the traditional white clothing and turban while teaching her classes.  She informed the staff and her students of the change in her religion and the clothes she was going to wear.  As the Oregon law states that “no teacher in any public school shall wear any religious dress while engaged in the performance of duties as a teacher.”  A second law states that any teacher who violates the previous law will face suspension and the teacher will be reported to the Superintendent of Public Instruction who will then revoke the teacher’s teaching certificate.  The school warned Cooper and when her dress did not cease, she was suspended from teaching and her teaching certificate was revoked.  The law singled out religious dress in the schools because it was religious and apparent while teaching.  The concern of the law was that the “teacher’s appearance in religious garb may leave a conscious or unconscious impression among young people and their parents that the school endorses the particular religious commitment of the person whom it has assigned the public role of teacher.”  The Court of Appeals ruled that revoking Cooper’s teaching certificate was an excessive sanction that was unnecessary.  The Supreme Court of Oregon however, reversed the decision saying that the statues can be interpreted to remain within constitutional limits and can be constitutionally administered; therefore the revocation of Cooper’s teaching certificate is not unlawful for being based on an invalid statute.

            In Beilan v. Board of Public Education, School District of Philadelphia (747-749), a case from 1958, Herman A. Beilan was a teacher in the Philadelphia public school system for 22 years when the Superintendent informed Beilan that he had information which contradicted Beilan’s loyalty and would like to determine whether or not it was true.  The Superintendent said he would ask one question and then Beilan could determine whether or not he wanted to answer it and others like it.  The Superintendent asked Beilan whether or not he had been the Press Director of the Professional Section of the Communist Political Association in 1944.  The Superintendent granted Beilan’s request to seek counsel before answering.  Later that year he was again summoned to the Superintendent’s office where he declined to answer the previous question and others like.  When the Superintendent informed him that failure to answer these questions might lead to his dismissal as they were investigating his fitness to be a teacher or to continue in the teaching work.  The court determined that the question asked of Beilan was relevant to the issue of his fitness and suitability to serve as a teacher, therefore Beilan's dismissal did not violate the federal Constitution.

            Teachers do have the right to speak out on public issues and they are also entitled to actively campaign for political candidates or if they choose to, they can run for office.  Teachers cannot be transfer, demoted, or dismissed for their political views and activity (McCarthy 52).  However, restrictions can be placed on running and holding an office and the type of office that they can hold.  They cannot hold incompatible offices such as a teacher on the school board.  This would be impossible because the teacher as a trustee would be supervising himself along with supervising other teachers and administrative personnel who in turn have some authority over him as a teacher (54-55).

            In the case of a teacher’s right to privacy, courts have been hesitant to establish definite criteria for evaluating teacher conduct and decide each issue in relation to the particular circumstances (McCarthy 60).  Dismissals resulting from unacceptable private conduct are generally based on immorality or unfitness to teach (McCarthy 60).  Such is the case with a homosexual teacher in Gaylord v. Tacoma School District (691-693).  James Gaylord was dismissed from his high school teaching position because of his sexual orientation.  While many people’s views on homosexuality have changed since 1977, some still view homosexuality as immoral and therefore unfit to be a teacher.  This was the case concerning James Gaylord and thus the Supreme Court agreed with the Tacoma Board of Education. 

            In conclusion a teacher’s constitutional rights, however clearly undefined they may be are still in fact there.  They are, unlike the general public, subject to determining whether their actions or their words are immoral or corrupt so as they are not fit to be a teacher.  Immorality is determined in what they say, how they physically present themselves, their approach to religion, political activities that they may involve themselves in, and their personal privacy.







Alexander, Kern, and M. David Alexander. American Public School Law.  California: Wadsworth Group, 2001.

Beilan v. Board of Public Education, School District of Philadelphia. 357 U.S. 399, 78 S.Ct. 1317. U.S. Sup. Ct. 1958.

Bess, James L. “Contract systems, bureaucracies, and faculty motivation: the probable effects of a no-tenure policy.” The Journal of Higher Education. 69. (1998): 1-22.

“Contract, Teacher.” Encyclopedia of American Education Vol.1. 2nd ed. 2001.

Cooper v. Eugene School District No. 4J. 301 Or. 358, 723 P.2d 298. Sup. Ct of Oregon. 1986.

East Hartford Education Association v. Board of Education. 562 F.2d 838 U.S. Ct of Appeals. 1977.

Fischer, Louis, and David Schimmel, and Cynthia Kelly. Teacher’s and the Law. New York: Longman Publishing Group, 1991.

Gatti, Daniel Jon, and Richard DeY Gatti. The Teacher and the Law.  New York: Parker Publishing Company, Inc., 1972.

Gaylord v. Tacoma School District. 88 Wash.2d 286, 559 P.2d 1340. U.S. Sup. Ct. 1977.

Givhan v. Western Line Consolidated School District. 439 U.S. 410, 99 S. Ct. 693. U.S. Sup. Ct. 1979.

Lieberman, Myron. “It pays to review your policy on paying teachers for extra academic credits.” The American School Board Journal. 170. (1983): 30.

McCarthy, Martha M., and Nelda H. Cambron. Public School Law: Teachers’ and Students’ Rights. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1981.

McDaniel, Thomas R. The Teacher’s Dilemma: Essays on School Law and School Discipline. New York: University Press of America, 1983.

Rubin, David, and Steven Greenhouse. The Rights of Teachers. New York: 1983.




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