In April, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on the discrimination claims of a non-tenured teacher who was terminated for expressing his personal views to students after the district received internal complaints about the content of his teaching. Following his termination, the world history teacher claimed that he was wrongfully terminated from his high school teaching position on the basis of race, ethnicity, and religion.

In Ali v. Woodbridge Township School District, district administration received a complaint about a history teacher’s instruction on the topic of the Holocaust. Another teacher reported that, after her students questioned historical accounts, opining that Hitler didn’t hate Jews and that statistics on the death counts were exaggerated, she learned from one of the students that he received the information from his world history teacher. In addition, students’ written assignments in the world history teacher’s class showed they believed that Adolf Hitler was “not a bad guy”; events reported in concentration camps did not really happen; and that Jews had a much more enjoyable life in the camps than had been generally reported. Additionally, the teacher presented a lesson to students that required them to read certain online articles that he posted on the district’s website that expressed the view that the American government was complicit in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. After a news reporter questioned the high school principal about the links posted to the website, the district investigated the allegations and terminated the teacher.

Subsequently, the teacher filed a multi-count complaint alleging various claims including discrimination in his termination based on his race and religion, and a violation of his rights to free speech and academic freedom under the First Amendment. The district disputed the claims and was successful in having all claims dismissed in district court. Following that dismissal, the teacher appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Third Circuit did not question the teacher’s claims of discrimination, focusing instead on the school district’s reasons for his termination. Specifically, the school district relied on (1) his dissemination of links to anti-Semitic online articles through the school’s official channels; (2) his lack of remorse and attempted justification for this conduct; and (3) his teaching of Holocaust denial theories to his students. The court accepted the district’s rationale as legitimate and held that the teacher failed to present any evidence that the district’s reasons for termination were pretextual.

The court therefore upheld the termination. With respect to the teacher’s First Amendment claim, the court found that teachers do not have a protected First Amendment right to decide the content of their lessons or how the material should be presented to their students, noting explicitly that, “[N]o court has found that teachers’ First Amendment rights extend to choosing their own curriculum or classroom management techniques in contravention of school policy or dictates.”

Board members and administrators are encouraged to discuss this decision with their board attorney. For additional information, please contact the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254.