Will Texas teacher be fired after offensive tweet causes firestorm?

A Texas English teacher was suspended without pay after a profanity-laden tweet with racist overtones referring to the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo. Most courts have found that, even with free-speech protections, school districts have the right to fire employees for what they say on their own time.

A teacher in a Dallas-area high school is learning the hard way that expressing an offensive opinion on a public platform has serious repercussions.

On Friday night, English teacher Vinita Hegwood sent out a profanity-laden tweet with racist overtones referring to the Ferguson, Mo., riots. By 8:30 Monday morning, she was suspended without pay and on her way to being fired.

"I can’t say it emphatically enough. The nature of the comments are reprehensible," said Lari Barager, a spokesperson for the Duncanville Independent School District, in a press conference later Monday morning. "Those comments having been made in such a public way left the district no other option."

It's not clear what might have prompted Ms. Hegwood's tweet, in which she wrote: "Who the [expletive] made you dumb duck [expletive] crackers think I give a squat [expletive] about your opinions about my opinions RE: Ferguson? Kill yourselves."

It was a personal Twitter account, but people quickly figured out that the tweet was made by a teacher, and outrage over the comments spread rapidly. By Sunday, the district issued a statement saying that it was aware of the tweet, calling the remarks "offensive" and "reprehensible," and promising "swift action."

By Texas law, a district's board of trustees is responsible for firing staff members, but the Duncanville district made clear Monday that by suspending Hegwood without pay and pursuing discharge with the board, that outcome was fairly clear.

In the press conference, Ms. Barager called it "pretty much a certain outcome."

While dismissals over social media comments made by teachers aren't common, they aren't unheard of either, and an increasing number of districts are adopting clear social media policies. Even as social media is working its way into the classroom in a growing number of schools – with some teachers saying that responsible use of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and education-specific sites like Edmodo can offer great educational opportunities – schools are also seeing the need for clear guidelines governing teachers' personal accounts, in particular. A number of districts ban teachers from accepting friend requests from students, and some make clear that private comments made on a social-media platform can be grounds for dismissal.

For the most part, courts have upheld that, even with free-speech protections, school districts and other employers of public employees have the right to fire those employees for what they say on their own time.

In one instance, a New Jersey teacher was fired after referring to her first-grade students as "future criminals" on her Facebook page. The firing was later upheld in court. Another New Jersey teacher was suspended without pay after railing against homosexuality on Facebook, calling it a "sin" and a "perverted spirit."

And this past summer, a federal judge upheld the firing of a Pennsylvania teacher who kept a blog in which, in certain posts, she referred to her students as "rat-like," "dunderhead," and "frightfully dim," and said parents were “breeding a disgusting brood of insolent, unappreciative, selfish brats." In the judge's decision, she said the district was within its rights firing the teacher, since the blog posts would "erode the necessary trust and respect" between the teacher and her students. 

But in other instances, teachers have managed to keep their jobs despite ill-considered social media posts. A California teacher recently was reprimanded and apologized – but ultimately stayed employed – after a number of offensive tweets about her students, including ones in which she said she wanted to stab or pour coffee on them. In her apology, the teacher said she didn't intend to have her tweets taken seriously, and a number of students stood up for her.

In Duncanville, the outrage was particularly strong, and the district's action has been swift. In a statement, the district emphasized its values embracing and celebrating diversity, and said that "the district wants the community to know that the actions of this one individual does not and should not represent the school district. Every day, two hundred and forty Duncanville High School teachers provide a school environment that fosters academic excellence, good citizenship and respect for others. Teachers give their life’s work to shaping the future, and this one individual does not represent our staff or our district."

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