A recent decision from the 10th Circuit confirms the notion that free speech rights shrink as one moves up the administrative ladder.  In Rock v. Levinski the court affirmed the termination of a principal who was fired because of the way she publicly criticized a decision made by the school administration.

Joyce Rock was principal of Career Prep High School, an alternative school in Shiprock, New Mexico.  In May, 2013, the superintendent decided to close the school due to budget concerns.  At a public meeting to discuss this, Ms. Rock opposed the plan.  Among other things, she expressed concerns that some of the students at Career Prep would not be successful in a more traditional, and larger school.

The superintendent did not appreciate this.  He charged her with being unprofessional. The superintendent held the belief that campus administrators should show support for administrative decisions, and should certainly not question the ability of kids to be successful in the school to which they will be assigned.

Ms. Rock was not the only speaker who opposed the planned school closure during the public meeting.  Others spoke out as well.  The school board took the concerns to heart.  The very next day, the board announced that it had found additional funds, and would keep the school open.

This must have been a relief to Ms. Rock, but what happened next was not.  Four days later her immediate supervisor put her on a growth plan, citing her failure to publicly support the superintendent as one reason.

It got worse.  Two weeks later the superintendent put Ms. Rock on administrative leave for the remainder of her contract, and decided that she would not be given another contract.

A couple of weeks after that the New Mexico Association of Secondary School Principals named Ms. Rock as its Principal of the Year.  This, no doubt, was a nice honor, but she was now out of a job and not happy about it. Ms. Rock filed suit against the superintendent and the district, claiming that they had retaliated against her for the exercise of First Amendment rights of free speech.

The court ruled in favor of the school district and the superintendent.  Critical to the court’s reasoning was the fact that Ms. Rock was a high ranking school official:

Rock was not an ordinary employee of the District. She was not a teacher, but a principal, a high-ranking member of the management team.

The court cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision for the proposition that “The burden of caution employees bear with respect to the words they speak will vary with the extent of authority and public accountability the employee’s role entails.”  Rankin v. McPherson, 483 U.S. 378 at 390 (1987).  In other words, the higher up you go, the more cautious you should be.

In support of its decision, the court cited two other Circuit Court decisions that specifically dealt with principals, and came to the same conclusion: Sharp v. Lindsey, 285 F.3d 479 (6th Cir. 2002) and Vargas-Harrison v. Racine Unified School District, 272 F.3d 964 (7th Cir. 2001).  Summing it up the court said:

A superintendent should be able to expect loyalty and support, at least in public, from a high-ranking employee like a principal who is responsible for implementing his policies.

The case is Rock v. Levinski, decided by the 10th Circuit on June 29, 2015.  It is cited at 791 F.3d 1215.