A federal court’s refusal to dismiss a lesbian teacher’s lawsuit that stemmed from her firing allows her to pursue claims of unlawful discrimination and censorship by the London City School District in Ohio.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge John D. Holschuh, in Cincinnati, came on June 8.
Jimmie K. Beall taught political science in the school district since 2000, receiving high ratings and repeated reappointments. An open lesbian who brought her partner to school functions, she nevertheless did not discuss her sexual orientation or private life with her students.
However, shortly after she taught a unit on gay rights in her high school class on law and society, the principal, Jeffery Thompson, revoked a recommendation for reappointment, and the school board backed him. Thompson and the district claimed they did not anticipate adequate enrollment in the next academic year to justify reappointing her, a claim the teacher’s union sharply disputed when it presented her grievance.
The lesson at issue was presented in connection with the National Day of Silence, an observance in many high schools and colleges of the continued threats facing LGBT students. Beall used a power point presentation in her lesson during which she did not speak.
When the lesson came to Thompson’s attention, he asked to see it. Beall contends that the principal became visibly agitated early in the presentation and said the subject was “shaky ground’ which he would have to discuss with the assistant superintendent for curriculum. Beall stopped the presentation at that point and evidently Thompson did not view it in its entirety.
There is no indication in Judge Holschuh’s opinion that Thompson received any complaints from students or parents about the presentation or about Beall’s teaching.
Beall brought her lawsuit under federal law allowing claims against public officials for violating an individual’s civil rights. Beall alleged violations of her right to equal protection, freedom of association, and academic freedom, relying on the First and 14th Amendments of the Constitution.
The school district moved for summary judgment, claiming that there were no disputed factual issues and that Beall failed to support her claims with evidence. Holschuh strongly disagreed on the equal protection and academic freedom issues. He said that if the school district proved its claim of why Beall was fired she would lose, but found that there was clear controversy as to whether enrollment declines explained her dismissal. Holschuh accepted Beall’s argument that the timing of her firing, in light of the Day of Silence incident, raised sufficient suspicions about the motivations of Thompson and the school board.
Holschuh pointed out that the Romer v. Evans Supreme Court ruling in 1996—which overturned a Colorado amendment that barred any government protections for homosexuals—established the right of gay people to be free of discrimination carried out by the government. Beall was entitled, he found, to her day in court provided she could plausibly claim that as a member of a “protected class” she was qualified for her position at the school, had suffered an adverse employment action, and was treated differently than others in the same circumstances. Holschuh found that Beall’s complaint contained sufficient factual allegations to meet these requirements. He noted, in particular, evidence that a straight social studies teacher who also included material about gay rights in her course had not been discharged.
The court also rejected claims by the principal and the district that they enjoyed qualified immunity in exercising their discretionary duties, a defense allowed when a plaintiff presents novel constitutional theories not been previously accepted. Ten years after Romer, Holschuh found, it is not plausible for public school officials to claim that they were unaware that anti-gay discrimination on their part is unconstitutional.
Holschuh dismissed, however, Beall’s freedom of association claim.—Arthur S. Leonard