High court refuses to hear appeal of teacher fired for Students' Profanity

The Associated Press
03.08.99

WASHINGTON — A Missouri high school teacher fired for letting her students use large amounts of profanity in class while performing self-written plays had her appeal turned away today by the Supreme Court.

The court, without comment, refused to hear an appeal in which the teacher argued that the firing violated her free-speech rights and was motivated by racial discrimination.

Cecilia Lacks taught at Berkeley Senior High School in the St. Louis suburb of Berkeley, Mo., in 1994 when she assigned her English class students to write short plays to be performed for the class and videotaped.

The videotape showed the students used profane words more than 150 times in about 40 minutes.

Some students complained, and after an investigation Lacks was charged with violating a school district policy that requires teachers to enforce a ban on student use of profanity. The school board fired her in 1995.

Lacks sued the Ferguson-Florissant Reorganized School District, saying the firing violated her free-speech rights under the Constitution's First Amendment because she wasn't notified that the anti-profanity rule applied to creative expression in class.

She also said her firing was the result of racial discrimination. She is white, while her former students are black, and two school officials who initiated and conducted the investigation are black.

A federal jury awarded Lacks $500,000 on her free-speech claim and $250,000 for racial discrimination.

But the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out both awards. "A school district does not violate the First Amendment when it disciplines a teacher for allowing students to use profanity repetitiously and egregiously in their written work," the appeals court ruled.

The appeals court also said Lacks did not prove that the school board was racially motivated in firing her.

In the appeal acted on today, Lacks' lawyers said school officials regularly tolerated profanity by students in their creative writing.

The school district's lawyers said she knew of the profanity ban and that she offered no evidence that her firing was motivated by race.

The case is Lacks v. Ferguson-Florissant Reorganized School District, 98-983.

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