Lawyer says school board’s firing of Vermont principal a ‘clear violation of the First Amendment’

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.

Bucknam Law

St. Johnsbury Attorney Deborah Bucknam

“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.

Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North. Send him news tips at and follow him on Twitter @TrueNorthMikeB.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Djmaschek and Bucknam Law

23 thoughts on “Lawyer says school board’s firing of Vermont principal a ‘clear violation of the First Amendment’

  1. When will we have a follow up article? This incident perpetrated by the school board of liberal progressive thought has become so widespread that they think anyone with a contrary opinion is not worthy to express their point of view. Students are exposed to such an onslaught of liberal brainwashing they are incapable, or fearful, of entertaining a researched argument for fear of being ostracized. Historically, Vermonter’s took pride in being independent and valued hard work. Do we want are children to be capable of critical thinking or lemmings to the current bias toward liberal Marxist Anti-American propaganda.

  2. I was shocked when I first hear about this, and I am so glad there is push-back to the board’s actions.
    A few people seem to be deciding the values for the rest of us.

  3. This is an email I sent to the superintendent of Schools:
    Dear Sir:

    I might expect this action from someone with no schooling, or the inability to read, or complete ignorance of the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of rights. You sir should know better, but you clearly don’t. You are incompetent or evil and should NEVER be allowed to have any influence over students. For you to attempt to fire Tiffany for a reasoned statement about an organization that marched through the streets calling for ” DEAD COPS” , that is using a terrible travesty by ONE POLICE OFFICER to use that to promote violence and hate ignoring the hundreds, if not thousands of blacks murdered by other blacks, is not only misguided, it is criminal in it’s ignorance.

    Ron Kocsis

    Vietnam Veteran, proud American and supporter of the 1st Amendment for all, not just leftist radicals like you and your school board.

    • Thank You for your service and for standing up Mr.Kocsis.
      More people in Vermont need to rise up and take the wheel back.. I’m over the river here in NH and I no longer even recognize Vermont.
      Where did my Twin State go?

  4. Are we skipping over the fact that she was asked to remove the American flag?!? Removing our flag is totally unacceptable! I am proud she refused to remove it and proud that she , along with most, stand for BLM and she is not Ignoring the other children of various race entering her school. Isn’t the point to unite us all? This is feeling more like a divide!

  5. This is the PROBLEM right here. Ready for this crazy reality? I hope you can handle it!!!

    The principal Of the school works full time and year round for a living. Deals with hundreds upon hundreds of tasks to delegate daily and the best part right here!!! SHES CARRYING OUT THE AMERICAN DREAM!!!! Unlike the typical SNOTTY, parent of the the student who gets in trouble the most, bored stay at home parent with nothing to do all day, and has endless time on there hands BOARD MEMBER. So sad. This also comes from the state that lets homeless people break in someone’s home while they’re away, make themselves at home and kick the home owner out when they return from an extended vacation!!

  6. i went to Windsor high but am ashamed of the people that made these horrific decisions which are against the constitution of the united states. i hope she sues and wins big and the people responsible for their racist bias are all fired and disgraced.

  7. I’ve noticed that the big public education monopoly and others are all about “tolerance” ….as long as you agree with them. Tired of good people being labeled as racists and haters by far left extremists.

    • Hey Matt: Of course, I know that you know ‘the big public education monopoly’ is about everything except ‘tolerance’. They are the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing. But I’m not sure most other TNR readers get it. Just being tired of being labeled a racist and a hater doesn’t cut the mustard. To continue with idioms – it’s time to get out while the getting is still good.

      • Well we sure get what’s going on over here in N’Hampsha Jay.
        This came up at today:

        “Explosive Interest in Home Schooling!”

        “More and more families are choosing to Home Educate their children in NH; we are consistantly adding more than 40 people to our Facebook group each week!”

        So see that trend Vermont.. this right here that happened in that school is exactly why.. this is freaky scary to anyone with a functioning brain.
        Wake Up Vermonters, you are the frogs in the pot of hot water!

  8. No! Principal Riley should not have to sue the school board, and neither should parents and the community be forced into the fray of dealing with the education monopoly’s tyranny.

    School Choice folks! I can’t say it often enough. Don’t get sucked into expensive lawsuits and propagandized debates with your neighbors. Everyone has the right to their opinion. But they don’t have the right to impose their opinion on others, as has this school board, and as has virtually every other school board in the State. Not only will School Choice improve education outcomes and lower costs, it will prevent the politics of a majority mob from forcing their pedagogy down the throats of our children and their teachers.

    As Benjamin Franklin opined in favor of our Republic and its individual rights: ‘Democracy is like two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.’ For this school board, Principal Riley, and everyone agreeing with her, is the latest entrée on their contrived menu. It’s time for an à la carte education – and its simple enough to legislate.

    School Choice!!!!

  9. ABSOLUTELY!!!! It’s time to STOP the thought police. This school board’s decision shows how narrow mindedthey are or just how frightened they are of being accused of being politically incorrect. ALL lives ²matter, period!!!

    • How absolutely hypocritical that you would stand up for freedom of speech, yet fully support government’s restriction of ALL rights for the sake of “safety.”

  10. What’s needed is for the public officials to be able to be sued,,no more immunity from stupid
    decisions. It’s become all too prevalent with the left who can’t win the argument anymore
    so use silence them approach. From Social Media to the Useless Media (fake MSM AntiAmerican propagandist ). they silence all but leftist drivel so the masses bend to their will.

    I hope she sues and wins big time, maybe the voters paying the bill will wise up and vote their pocket book instead of their feelings.

    • I hope she sues and takes a BIG BITE out of the school board and wherever else she can obtain compensation for the injustice she has suffered. These little people should be reminded that the First Amendment applies to ALL, rather than the ones they select.

    • No,the last thing that Vermont needs is more Lawfare.
      What the people need to do is assume some personal responsiblility and clean up the messes they make.
      That is totally not the answer to everything that you don’t like- Vermonters have built an economy on Lawfare and it’s nuts. It’s a method to control and manipulate people because they then live in fear of it. Do you want more of that?
      That is taking what is supposed to be your problem to deal with and dumping it onto someone else-who will then rob you for the job you gave them.
      What’s needed there is a REAL Republican Party and they need to organize, and teach people. They need to stand up and Lead, and Lead Loudly right now. And I don’t mean the RINO Party, or the Mushball Party, I mean a Republican Party that is ready to get the job done.
      Parents will then follow as they learn. Your young parents are also victims of the rotten education! They don’t even know what they don’t know- and who’s fault it that?
      This is still a free country and the parents should leave the propaganda program and educate their own kids. How long do you think a half empty school will stay open?
      You’ve got the greatest gift there is right there in Vermont : Ben Hewitt.
      Parents need to read his book called “Home Grown” and then leave the Vermont Plantation and Be FREE!!


  11. She was spot on, recognized all sides , was reasonable, and compassionate to everyone. Too many people overreacting, sitting on their high horse, and not understanding everyone’s view.

  12. I’m on Riley’s side. Those who oppose her are caught up in the BLM rhetoric and unreasonable antics.

  13. After over 20 years in HR, I was astounded that the school board took this unanimous action apparently without seeking counsel for advice. I worry about elected officials who are elected without credentials/experience among
    them and act without consult. This was clearly an act of incompetence that has not only hurt an employee but put the Town of Windsor in jeopardy. I agree that the School Board be held accountable for their action and consider resigning. This does reflect on what schools are teaching now because people need to know their basic rights without question. Obviously, Ms Riley did. I wish her well and admire the example she has set for future employees.

  14. Since when is it okay to go after someone for refusing to remove a symbol for our country? You don’t like our flag and what it represents? Leave…period. See if you’d be able to stir up unnecessary trouble in another country!

  15. Ya think, She should sue the school district and win a settlement that includes the firing of all involved, every last leotard.

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