A law prohibiting the abuse of a teacher or school administrator does not violate the First Amendment, a Kentucky appeals court has ruled. The appeals court reasoned that the law prohibits fighting words, a category of speech defined by the U.S. Supreme Court as speech that “by its very utterance inflicts injury or incites an immediate breach of the peace.”
The law in question provides that “it shall be unlawful for any person to direct speech or conduct toward the teacher, classified employee, or school administrator when such person knows or should know that the speech or conduct will disrupt or interfere with normal school activities or will nullify or undermine the good order and discipline of the school.”
Johnathan Masters, a graduate student at the University of the Cumberlands, faced charges under the law after he had a verbal disagreement with Keith Haynes, the principal of Clover Independent Schools. According to The Courier Journal, Masters wanted to conduct “a survey about democracy for a project” he was working on as a graduate student at Cumberlands.
Haynes apparently did not help Masters, causing Masters to call Haynes a profane name. Allegedly, Masters also said he could “kick [Haynes’] ass.” Masters was kicked off campus and later charged for violating the teacher-abuse law.
The Breckenridge District Court held the law constitutional, a decision affirmed by the Breckenridge Circuit Court. Masters then appealed to the Court of Appeals of Kentucky, which also ruled the law constitutional in Masters v. Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Masters argued the law was vague and overbroad. The Kentucky appeals court disagreed, finding that a reasonable person would know that threatening to fight a school principal violates the law.
The more interesting part of the appeals court’s analysis concerns the overbreadth challenge. “Here, the statute is a proper time-place-manner restriction and not overbroad,” the Kentucky appeals court wrote. “The statute does not seek to suppress expression, but rather attempts to preserve a suitable learning environment by curbing unreasonable, and potentially dangerous, disruptions to routine school operations.”
The appeals court ostensibly relies on the fighting-words doctrine, reasoning that “[a]ngrily telling someone you are going to physically harm them is precisely the type of speech that would incite a reasonable person to violence.”
The Kentucky appeals court’s decision is interesting. First, the statute is not a time, place, and manner restriction on speech. Rather, the statute criminalizes a certain type of speech – teacher abuse. The law targets a specific type of speech – critical, abusive speech of teachers. It is hard to see how this is a time, place, and manner restriction on speech.
Granted, the statute is not as flagrantly unconstitutional as its predecessor, which read: “No person shall upbraid, insult, or abuse any teacher of the public schools in the presence of the school or in the presence of any pupils of the school.” The Kentucky Court of Appeals invalidated that law in 1985.
However, the current Kentucky law prohibits speech which “will disrupt or interfere” with school activities. The law does not require that the speech substantially or materially disrupt school activities – the recognized standard for student speech articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969).
By contrast, Arkansas’ teacher abuse and insult law prohibits speech that “is calculated to materially and substantially interfere with the operation of the school.”
The danger with such a law is that it could be applied to a parent or member of the community who merely expresses hearty disagreement or criticism of a school official.
David L. Hudson, Jr., the Ombudsman for the Newseum Institute First Amendment Center, has written several books on school law, including Let The Students Speak!: A History of the Fight for Freedom of Expression in American Schools and Teen Legal Rights (3rd edition).