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Miami-Dade School Board Wins First Amendment Ruling


Miami-Dade School Board Wins First Amendment Ruling

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has ruled in favor of the Miami-Dade County  School Board in a suit brought by two administrators who claimed their First Amendment rights were violated.

Alberto Fernandez, principal, and Henny Cristobol, assistant principal, claimed they were demoted and disciplined for their efforts to turn the historic Neva King Campbell Educational Center into a charter school. After originally opening in 1913 as an elementary school, the center was renovated and reopened in the 1980s to serve students with intellectual disabilities.

“Determined to improve the school’s instructional quality, Fernandez and Cristobol resolved to convert Neva King into a charter school,” Judge Stanley Marcus wrote for a panel of three, including Circuit Judge Charles Wilson and District Judge Marcia Howard of the Middle District of Florida, sitting by designation. “They directed staff members to research charter conversion. They held a faculty meeting, where they attempted to mobilize the faculty’s support for their initiative. Moreover, with Cristobol’s assistance, Fernandez urged Neva King’s Educational Excellence School Advisory Council (‘the School Advisory Council’) to pursue charter conversion.”

After the council agreed to hold a vote, Fernandez and Cristobol began work on the balloting process.

But the charter movement did not last, according to the decision, as the Miami-Dade County School Board launched an investigation, leading to disciplinary measures. The plaintiffs claimed they were reassigned to “tedious tasks for which they were overqualified,” and lodged their First Amendment suit in federal court, seeking restoration of their previous jobs.

District Judge Darrin Gayles, granting the school board’s summary judgment motion, “concluded that their speech was not constitutionally protected because it was uttered pursuant to and as part of their ‘official duties’ as public employees, and, therefore, granted summary judgment to the School Board,” Marcus wrote.

The 23-page opinion issued Friday in the appeal answered one question.

“The only issue we address today is whether the district court properly concluded that the Administrators’ speech was not protected by the First Amendment,” Marcus said. “We hold that it did.”

The decision turned on the fact that the administrators were speaking as public employees and in the scope of their official duties. Speaking as private citizens on matters of public interest is a different matter, Marcus said.

“Whether they spoke as private citizens or public employees and about matters of public concern makes all the difference,” Marcus said. “Sometimes, answering these questions is difficult, particularly as we remember that ‘citizens do not surrender their First Amendment rights by accepting public employment.’ Lane v. Franks, 134 S. Ct. 2369, 2374 (2014). This is not one of those cases.”

“The long and short of it is that the principal and assistant principal of Neva King Cooper Educational Center spearheaded this charter school conversion pursuant to their official duties. They may not sue the School Board under the First Amendment,” Marcus concluded. “We affirm.”

The school board was represented by in-house counsel Luis Garcia.

Fernandez and Cristobol were represented by: Thomas Elfers of Miami and Craig Freger of Pembroke Pines.

The attorneys did not return calls for comment.

How the Law Offices of Scott A. Ferris Can Help

If you, a friend or a family member find themselves in a situation such as this, please call the Law Office of Scott A. Ferris, P.A. at 305 670-3330 right away. Scott A. Ferris, Esq. is a licensed civil attorney who has been practicing law since 1987. He is available whenever you need him to pursue your rights. Please learn about our firm at www.FerrisLawFirm.com.

Republished by the Law Office of Scott A. Ferris, P.A.

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