from Teacher Magazine
Then and Now: Supreme Indignity
When English teacher Cissy Lacks lost her job, she went to the nation's
hightest court to try to get it back.
Cissy Lacks never imagined her teaching career ending like this. With a
lucrative book deal and a nice retirement party, maybe. But not with a
four-year court battle to win back a job she lost for letting students use
profanity in their classwork.
Even now, Lacks can't quite believe it. The case, which came to an abrupt
conclusion in May when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear
Lacks'arguments, transformed the high school English teacher into a
high-profile crusader for academic freedom. But she still looks back on her
once-quiet life in the classroom and wonders how it all happened.
"There was a sort of mythology built up around me," says Lacks, a 22-year
teaching veteran. "I'm really not a rebel. I'd hear people say how I was pushing
the envelope, and I'd think, My goodness! Who are they
For Lacks, the quiet life ended on January 11, 1995, when officials at
Berkeley Senior High in the Ferguson-Florissant school district near St.
Louis confiscated videotapes and a grade book from her classroom after she'd
gone home for the day. The tapes showed members of her 11th grade English
class performing plays they had written three months earlier. Like many of
Lacks' assignments, the plays dealt with what one student described as "our
harsh reality." After viewing the tapes, which were filled with profanity
and sexual themes, school administrators immediately suspended Lacks. Two
months later, they fired her.
Lacks fought back in federal court, arguing that the 10,000-student district
had violated her First Amendment rights and failed to give her adequate
notice that her teaching methods were unacceptable. In 1996, a U.S. district
judge ruled in her favor, saying she had not willfully violated school
policy. The judge ordered the school system to reinstate Lacks, and three
months later a federal jury awarded her $750,000.
The victory was short-lived, however. In 1998, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals overturned the monetary judgment and cleared the school district of
any obligation to reinstate Lacks. Explaining the court's decision, Chief
Judge Richard Arnold cited the importance of maintaining a civil atmosphere
in the classroom. The school board, he wrote, had a legitimate academic
interest in prohibiting the use of profanity.
Stunned by the decision, Lacks asked for a rehearing, but the circuit court
denied her petition last fall. In May, the Supreme Court declined to hear
her appeal. "I could not believe the Supreme Court would allow this to
stand," she says. "I was extraordinarily disappointed. In a just world, this
never should have happened."
These days, Lacks lives off a partial pension— she was fired just three
years before qualifying for full benefits—and what she makes as a
representative for a cosmetics company. &e has written a book about her
experience and speaks about education and her case when asked.
In her talks to teachers, Lacks reminds them that she was fired for doing
what she had always done in her classroom. She had no idea she was violating district rules.
"I don't want to scare teachers," she says, "but on the
other hand, I think we have something to be scared about."
She isn't the only one who thinks so. A coalition of three organizations—the
National Education Association, the National Council of Teachers of English,
and the PEN American Center, a writers' association that defends freedom of
expression—helped bankroll Lacks' court fight. And in 1996, actor Paul
Newman presented her with a PEN First Amendment award and a check for
"You can beat people down," Lacks says. "But there were people who didn't
want that to happen to me. I don't have to hang my head. I don't have to
behave like a beaten dog because I'm not."