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In One School District, Free Speech Has Become a Fireable Offense

Government employers shouldn’t discipline teachers simply because they expressed their views on a widely discussed issue.
Mathew Hoffmann
Katie Medart and Rachel Sager were fired for voicing their beliefs

It’s hard to push back on any issue these days, when any point that challenges the prevailing social ideology is frequently silenced by the powers that be.

In Grants Pass, Ore., the powers that be are school administrators who retaliated against two dedicated educators for offering their views on how to best care for children and respect the rights of their parents and teachers.

A little common sense and compassion, it turns out, would cost them their jobs. Rachel Sager and Katie Medart have been in the education field for many years, including at North Middle School in Grants Pass. Sager, who served as assistant principal at the school, and Medart, who taught science, were placed on administrative leave in 2021 — and later fired — for courageously standing up to share some ideas with parents, the school community, and society at large.

Those ideas related to gender-identity education policy, including the kind of federal and state legislation that seems designed more to assuage the demands of social activists than to address the real problems of schoolchildren. As educators, Rachel and Katie saw daily children with gender-identity struggles, and they understood the questions and confusion many parents feel in trying to help their kids.

So the two women launched I Resolve, a grassroots movement to promote “reasonable, loving, and tolerant solutions” for gender-identity education policies that “respect everyone’s rights” — including those of educators, parents, and children. Their proposals allow teachers to abide by their conscience and refrain from using pronouns inconsistent with a student’s sex.

I Resolve advocates the designation of locker rooms, showers, and restrooms consistent with a student’s sex. It also endorses and gives students the option to request access to private restrooms and locker rooms.

But it turned out that, in Grants Pass, tolerance was not a two-way street.

The superintendent actively solicited negative comments from staff members and students after Rachel and Katie expressed their opinions about their personal area of expertise, on their own online platform. And then in a clear violation of the educators’ free-speech and religious rights, officials suspended and then terminated them.

What’s more, school-district policy effectively bans free speech. On campus, teachers cannot take sides on “controversial” issues. Even in private conversations off campus, they’re required to offer disclaimers that distance their opinions from official district policy.

And, to preserve the school’s ability to pick winners and losers in such debates, district officials gave themselves the power to decide what’s “controversial.” They have the discretion to punish district employees who don’t adhere to the officials’ conversational directives.

That’s a rather breathtaking suffocation of free speech and a clear violation of the constitutional rights of educators. Educators, like everybody else, have ideas and opinions they should be free to express. Thoughtfully advocating solutions they believe in should stimulate conversation, not subject them to disciplinary action.

In defense of their free-speech rights and religious freedom, Rachel and Katie filed suit against the school district. A district court recently ruled against them; the two women have now appealed their case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Their hope — not only for themselves, but for all teachers — is that the appeals court will reaffirm that public schools can’t retaliate against educators for expressing opinions on fundamental issues of public concern — such as gender-identity education policy — that implicate the freedoms of educators, parents, and students. Rachel and Katie spoke while off campus and off duty, but the school district used its overreaching speech policy to punish them for expressing their beliefs.

Rachel and Katie had left positions at higher educational levels specifically to work with younger students. They care about the challenges these children face in an increasingly complicated world. They wanted to come alongside concerned parents to think through these issues and find reasonable, loving, tolerant solutions.

That combination of investment, insight, and compassion is something all parents should be overjoyed to have in the person responsible for guiding their child’s education. And it’s something a school district should celebrate, not punish. All educators should be free to advocate solutions they believe in. The Ninth Circuit should make clear that government employers can’t discipline teachers simply because they expressed their views on such an important issue.

Mathew Hoffmann
Mathew Hoffmann
Legal Counsel
Mathew Hoffmann serves as legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, where he is a key member of the Center for Academic Freedom.