Court of Appeals: Div. III – Teacher’s Use of School Computer for Lobbying Is Grounds for Dismissal
Knudsen is apparently a take charge kind of person. She even represented herself in the appeal of this case. But sometimes this type of approach can get you into trouble. Knudsen was a teacher at Spokane Community College (SCC). She sent an email from an SCC computer urging recipients to pursue approval of two pending bills that would provide tenure-like protections to part time college teachers. Knudsen was a part time college teacher. Was.
The email violated school policy, state statutes, and administrative code for using state resources for lobbying. Although Knudson did not agree that her email was lobbying, she was unable to present evidence that the email was within the scope of her duties as an English teacher. The Washington State Executive Ethics Board entered a finding that Knudsen had violated school policy, state statutes, and the administrative code. Knudson did try to argue that the email was sent on behalf of her union, but then contradicted herself when she testified that the union had made no efforts to lobby on behalf of this legislation. Knudsen appealed to the Superior Court and then to the Court of Appeals.
The Washington Administrative Code allows for de minimis personal use of state resources, EXCEPT if the use is “for the purpose of participating in or assisting in an effort to lobby the state legislature, or a state agency head.” WAC 292-110-010.
Knudsen argued that the school’s email policy violated her free speech rights. However, her argument was procedurally incorrect, as the Board did not consider the email policy when it made its determination; it only considered the statute and the WAC. Thus the Court of Appeals could not consider the constitutionality of the school’s email policy. The Court agreed, but analyzed her argument anyway:
The constitution allows the regulation of protected speech in certain circumstances. For example, speech in public forums is subject to valid time, place, and manner restrictions that are content-neutral, are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample alternative channels of communication. In contrast, speech in nonpublic forums may be restricted if the distinctions drawn are reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum and are viewpoint neutral
Since the email system was a nonpublic forum and application of the statute and WAC was reasonable and viewpoint neutral, there was no constitutional violation
So in an attempt to protect her teaching position, Knudsen lost hers. Class dismissed! Or should I say “Claim dismissed!”