Teachers' Rights: Overview
Freedom from Discrimination
The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution protects teachers at public schools from discrimination based on race, sex, and national origin. These forms of discrimination are also barred through the enactment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was amended in 1972 to include educational institutions. This law provides that it is an unlawful employment practice for any employer to discriminate against an individual based on the race, color, religion, sex, or national origin of the individual. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 provides protection against discrimination based on sex at educational institutions that receive federal financial assistance. Title VII and IX also prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace.
A teacher who has been subjected to discrimination has several causes of action, though proof in some of these cases may be difficult. A teacher may bring a cause of action under section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code for deprivation of rights under the Equal Protection Clause (or other constitutional provision). However, to succeed under this cause of action, the teacher would need to prove that the school had the deliberate intent to discriminate. Similarly, a teacher bringing a claim under Title VII must demonstrate that the reasons given by a school for an employment decision were false and that the actual reason for the decision was discrimination.
Teachers in public schools have limited freedoms in the classroom to teach without undue restrictions on the content or subjects for discussion. These freedoms are based on rights to freedom of expression under the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. However, the concept of academic freedom is quite limited. The content taught by a teacher must be relevant to and consistent with the teacher's responsibilities, and a teacher cannot promote a personal or political agenda in the classroom. Factors such as the age, experience, and grade level of students affect the latitude in which a court will recognize the academic freedom of a teacher.
Freedom of Expression
A leading case in First Amendment jurisprudence regarding protected forms of expression is Pickering v. Board of Education. This case involved a teacher whose job was terminated when he wrote to a local newspaper an editorial critical of the teacher's employer. The Supreme Court held that the school had unconstitutionally restricted the First Amendment rights of the teacher to speak on issues of public importance. Based on Pickering and similar cases, teachers generally enjoy rights to freedom of expression, though there are some restrictions. Teachers may not materially disrupt the educational interest of the school district, nor may teachers undermine authority or adversely affect working relationships at the school.
Freedom of Association
Similar to rights to freedom of expression, public school teachers enjoy rights to freedom of association, based on the First Amendment's provision that grants citizens the right to peaceful assembly. These rights generally permit public school teachers to join professional, labor, or similar organizations; run for public office; and similar forms of association. However, teachers may be required to ensure that participation in these activities is completely independent from their responsibilities to the school.
Freedom of Religion
The First Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provide protection against religious discrimination by school districts against teachers. Teaches may exercise their religious rights, though there are certain restrictions to such rights. This existence of restrictions is particularly relevant to the public schools, since public schools are restricted from teaching religion through the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Thus, for example, a teacher is free to be a practicing Christian, yet the teacher cannot preach Christianity in the classroom.
Teachers enjoy limited rights to personal privacy, though courts will often support disciplinary action taken by a school district when a teacher's private life affects the integrity of the school district or the effectiveness by which a teacher can teach. Thus, for example, a teacher may be terminated from his or her position for such acts as adultery or other sexual conduct outside marriage, and courts will be hesitant to overrule the decisions of the school board.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, with its subsequent amendments, provides protection for teachers over the age of 40 against age discrimination. Under this act, age may not be the sole factor when a school district terminates the employment of a teacher. If a teacher charges a school district with age discrimination, the school district has the burden to show that some factor other than age influenced its decision.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 provides protection for teachers who are pregnant. Under this act, a school district cannot dismiss or demote a pregnant teacher on the basis of her pregnancy, nor may a district deny a job or deny a promotion to a pregnant teacher on the basis of her pregnancy.