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The firing of Brooke Harris: a teachable moment about free speech

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Consider the case of Jillian Caruso, who was fired from her Massapequa Park, N.Y., elementary school after her principal objected to a picture of George W. Bush that she displayed in her classroom during Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. A member of the Republican National Committee, Ms. Caruso alleged that the principal – who was married to a Democratic state assemblyman – violated her First Amendment rights to free speech and association.

Caruso’s dismissal generated a few columns and blog posts from outraged Republicans. But from Democrats? Not a peep. Nor did I hear much protest – from any side of the aisle – when a federal jury ruled against Caruso in 2007.

In instructing the jury, the presiding judge emphasized that Caruso had freedom of speech in her capacity as a citizen, but not as a teacher. So she was free to support President Bush on her own time – and on her own dime – but not while she was in school.

Here the judge invoked the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos, which said that public employees have no First Amendment rights when they are speaking as part of their “official duties.” The state hires employees to deliver a certain message, the court said, so it can also penalize those who deviate from it.

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