Members of the Mount Ascutney School District Board say they plan to fire Windsor School Principal Tiffany Riley for comments she made about certain tactics of Black Lives Matter, but a St. Johnsbury attorney says doing so would violate the law.
“From a legal point of view, it’s a clear violation of the First Amendment,” Deborah Bucknam, an expert in employment law and municipal law, told True North. “This is a government entity that has fired — or disciplined at least and perhaps will fire — a person because she spoke up on a political issue.”
Bucknam said government entities are limited in employment decisions, especially when it comes to speech-related issues.
“Even if they consider this hate speech, hate speech cannot be sanctioned or regulated by a government entity because it violates the First Amendment. There are only very narrow instances when someone says something that can be prosecuted — for example, when someone makes a threat,” she said.
In a Facebook post last week, Riley stated that she supports Black Lives Matter but does not support coercive tactics by the group.
“I firmly believe that Black Lives Matter,” she wrote, “but I DO NOT agree with the coercive measures taken to get to this point across; some of which are falsified in an attempt to prove a point. While I want to get behind BLM, I do not think people should be made to feel they have to choose black race over human race.
“While I understand the urgency to feel compelled to advocate for black lives, what about our fellow law enforcement? What about all others who advocate for and demand equity for all? Just because I don’t walk around with a BLM sign should not mean I am a racist.”
Bucknam says a private business has the legal right to fire employees for speech that some deem controversial, but the government sector is bound to respect free speech rights.
“It’s different from a private company letting someone go for something they said on Twitter or Facebook or wherever, because private companies are not the government,” she said. “The First
Amendment applies to government action, and in this case the school board obviously is the government, and so firing someone for voicing protected speech is a violation of the First Amendment.”
After Riley posted her Facebook comment, the board issued their statement seeking to fire her.
“We have voted unanimously to place Ms. Riley on paid leave, effective immediately, and we are resolved that she will no longer lead our school,” the statement read.
“The ignorance, prejudice, and lack of judgement in these statements are utterly contrary to the values we espouse as a school board and district,” they wrote.
The statement was signed by Elizabeth Burrows, the board chair; Amy McMullen, the vice chair; Beth Carter; Kris Garnjost; Nancy Pedrick; and Bill Yates.
The board members also claimed white people are privileged compared to their non-white peers: “If we are not acknowledging White Advantage and working to remove it, we are not attempting to provide our minority students an equal opportunity for education. If we are not teaching all our students that bias exists in our community and working to remove it, we are complicit in its perpetuation.”
The board created a task force to take on social justice issues, and the school is now developing an ethnic studies curriculum.
At least 12 students, including this year’s Windsor School valedictorian, sent a letter to the board expressing their concerns about Riley’s post. In addition, Superintendent David Baker said he thought Riley’s Facebook account must have been hacked.
According to Bucknam, the education system is not effectively teaching the basics of American constitutional rights, including the right to free speech.
“People apparently are not learning the basics of our founding,” she said. ” … I’m worried about the younger generation.”
The rifts between Riley and local residents began before she posted her comments on Facebook. Riley reportedly refused to remove a painting of an American flag for this year’s graduation ceremonies, something the board disagreed with.