Utah Officials Illegally Ban Teacher's Free Speech
SALT LAKE CITY -- In a federal lawsuit, a tenured teacher is charging that school officials have illegally barred her from discussing her sexual orientation.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Wendy Weaver, a 17-year psychology and physical education teacher. The lawsuit says that school and district officials violated Weaver's rights to free speech, privacy and equal protection guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution as well as the Utah Constitution.
"Utah tried to muzzle gay student groups last year; now this school district is trying to muzzle its teachers," said Jennifer Middleton, staff attorney with the ACLU's National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "As school districts nationwide are addressing issues of sexual orientation, this lawsuit seeks to ensure that gay teachers have the same free speech and privacy protections as straight teachers."
In July 1997, the lawsuit charges, two school officials violated Weaver's constitutional rights when they sent a memo to her warning that she was "not to make comments, announcements or statements to students, staff members or parents of students regarding your homosexual orientation or lifestyle." The memo went on to say that if she were asked about her sexual orientation, Weaver "shall tell them that the subject is private and personal and inappropriate to discuss with them."
Finally, the lawsuit says, the defendants wrote, "this memo is to place you on notice of the expectations the school district has for you and may jeopardize your job and be cause for termination."
In her 17 years with the Spanish Fork High School and the Nebo School District, Weaver has developed an excellent reputation as an effective and capable teacher and consistently received superior evaluations from her peers and supervisors.
"I believe the actions of the district are wrong," Weaver said. "I am not ashamed of my sexual orientation and I believe they are discriminating against me because of that.
"I attempted repeatedly to resolve this issue with the principal and with others, and received no response from either the principal or the district," Weaver added. "I want the memo removed from my personnel files and I want to be respected for my professionalism and for my work as a teacher."
David B. Watkiss, a Salt Lake City attorney in private practice, filed today's case with Pamela Martinson, staff attorney with the ACLU of Utah, and Middleton of the ACLU's National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.
In addition to a finding that the defendants violated Weaver's constitutional rights, the lawsuit asks the court to order the defendants to remove the memo from her personnel file as well as an order prohibiting Nebo School District Officials from enforcing the threats in the memo. The lawsuit also seeks damages and attorney's fees.
Carol Gnade, Executive Director of the ACLU of Utah, said her organization is "committed to fighting for the same rights to free speech, privacy and equal protection for all educators regardless of their sexual orientation."