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

talking about?"

 

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

$25,000.

 

"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."

—GREG MAELING

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