We previously discussed the disturbing case of Vermont Principal Tiffany Riley who was suspended after she wrote on Facebook that she does not agree with the Black Lives Matter movement. Shortly after that posting, Mount Ascutney School Board held an emergency meeting to declare that it is “uniformly appalled” and that Riley was “tone deaf” for making such a statement. In what should now be a major free speech case, the Board unanimously voted to fire Riley, citing her “denigrating, derogatory, or contrary to the movement for social equity for African Americans, including the Black Lives Matter movement.”
The Board’s 50-page decision is a virtual invitation for a lawsuit. It is clear that Riley is being punished for holding an opposing view of BLM. While struggling to find objective grounds for termination like a failure “to see both sides of an issue” or being “stubborn when facing criticism,” it is abundantly clear that Riley is being fired for her statement on BLM. Indeed, those objections would normally warrant a sit down with a superintendent, not a termination. Instead, the report highlights the statement as “’diametrically contrary’ to her job of promoting racial equity.”
Here again is the statement:
I firmly believe that Black Lives Matter, but I DO NOT agree with the coercive measures taken to get to this point across; some of which are falsified in an attempt to prove a point. While I want to get behind BLM, I do not think people should be made to feel they have to choose black race over human race. While I understand the urgency to feel compelled to advocate for black lives, what about our fellow law enforcement? What about all others who advocate for and demand equity for all? Just because I don’t walk around with a BLM sign should not mean I am a racist.
The Board added that she was “upset” in speaking with Superintendent David Baker despite the fact that Baker was widely denounced for his comments in the controversy. The Report states that Baker had told Riley that her comments were “inflammatory, “incendiary,” and “racist” and then expresses shock that she took offense. She is quoted as saying “I am a little offended that you, my leader who has known me for seven years, would even sit here and suggest that there is some racist in me. I am a little offended by that.”
The most interesting part of the Report (which refers to Riley as “Employee”) is the discussion of the events leading up to the Facebook posting. It concerned the simple painting of an American flag at the school before graduation, a symbol declaring insulting or disturbing by Iyanna Williams, a Windsor School graduate.
16. Prior to graduation, an American flag was painted on Windsor School grounds in the area where graduation ceremonies were to be held. Employee PFT ¶ 29; Superintendent PFT at 2. There are differences in witness accounts as to who directed/caused the flag to be painted and why, but that fact is not relevant to the Board’s decision.
17. Employee and Superintendent both received a 9:34 AM June 2, 2020, email (addressed to Employee, cc’d to Superintendent) from Iyanna Williams, a Windsor School Alumna. Employee at 001. The email included statements describing Ms. Williams’ views about the display of the American flag at graduation “in light of recent times,” generally with respect to concerns that display of the flag is associated with exclusion of African American citizens from political considerations. A link to an opinion piece on theguardian.com was included in the email, which describes the writer’s concerns whether the American flag has become a symbol associated with anti-minority views.
What is notable is that Riley repeatedly reaches out to Williams, who wanted the addition of a painted statement on BLM or other symbols added. Baker and the District agreed that the flag should not be painted over. The Report shows Riley reaching out to explore other possibilities:
24. Also shortly after Ms. Williams’ 6:41 PM email of June 2, Employee emailed Ms. Williams at 6:52 PM asking for her thoughts as to what might be added to the graduation site display, and she asked/suggested whether any of the following slogans might be worthwhile: “United We Stand; All Means All; Stop the Violence; Equity for All.” Employee at 006.
25. Erin Rockwood is a Windsor School employee and parent, and she is married to Kabray Rockwood, an African American man who is a coach at the School. Superintendent PFT at 2. Ms. Williams resided in the Rockwood household at the time of relevant events. Id. at 2.
26. On June 2, 2020, Employee texted Ms. Rockwood to ask her opinion about Employee possibly including comments about George Floyd’s death in Employee’s graduation speech. Employee PFT ¶ 42; Hearing Transcript at 95. The text messages on June 2 are exhibits appearing at Employee 010-013.8 Ms. Rockwood’s texts included a request that the painted American flag be removed from the school grounds before graduation, with a detailed explanation of why she felt it was problematic to be displayed at the graduation site.
27. Ms. Williams emailed Employee (apparently not including Superintendent) at 11:24 AM on June 3, 2020. Employee at 007. Ms. Williams’ email includes the statements: Phrases like “all means all” and “united we stand” are politically correct ways of saying all lives matter. This statement “all lives matter” has been used to take away from pointed efforts to save black lives. Black lives matter has a hidden “too” attached to the end of it, because until Black lives matter, all lives can’t matter.
28. Employee responded by email at 11:29 AM on June 3, 2020, with no cc to Superintendent, including thanking Ms. Williams for her thoughts and indicating she would reach out to the school’s buildings and grounds person. Employee at 008.
The graduation was held without painting over the American flag and there were not BLM displays. The Report then offers this account:
37. At 11:42 AM, June 8, 2020, Ms. Williams emailed both Employee and Superintendent, including asking why neither attended the previous night’s rally, reviewing prior communications around whether something concerning racial equity would be displayed at graduation, and commenting “It is so sad to me that you have both decided to respond out of anger, instead of action.” Employee at 022.
38. Employee responded by email at 11:06 PM, June 8, 2020, cc’g Superintendent, and stating that Employee’s prior email “was not sent with any hint of anger” and stating why she was unavailable to attend the rally. Employee at 023.
39. On June 9, 2020, at 2:09 PM, Erin Rockwood sent Employee a lengthy email which opened with the statement “I wanted to reach out as Iyanna talked to me about the back and forth you had yesterday.” Employee at 024. Ms. Rockwood wrote in part:
“Today she informed me that in your back and forth you had responded saying that you had asked me a question regarding the Black Lives Matter flag and that I hadn’t responded. That you had requested that maybe the kids make posters. I was very taken back by this. Am I to think that it is my fault that black lives were not represented on the hill because I didn’t have my children make posters? I am feeling broken by this. I have to say that I don’t feel like it is my responsibility as a parent to do the work to represent the black community of Windsor. Asking kids of Windsor to make posters to represent their race because the school didn’t take the steps to do it just seems so off. … Please understand that this email is an extended hand to help to create change and to take steps to better educate our community, our children, and our teachers experience in an all-inclusive school building … together.”
It was shortly later that Riley posted her statement on Facebook.
Afterward, the Report recounts this exchange:
44. Also on June 10, 2020, Kabray Rockwood, the husband of Erin Rockwood and a coach at the Windsor School, posted Employee’s June 10 Facebook post to his public Facebook page along with comments critical of the post and critical of Employee’s non-attendance at the BLM rally. Employee PFT ¶ 78; Employee at 036.
45. Employee’s June 10 Facebook post generated over one hundred comments and was reposted or copied by others so that it became widely shared. Superintendent at 6.
46. On June 11, 2020, at 6:57 AM, after seeing that he had shared her initial Facebook post, Employee sent Mr. Rockwood a private Facebook message which stated in part:
“Perhaps my post wasn’t clearly articulated. It certainly was not intended to offend anyone. Here’s some context behind it. I have been getting harassed via email about the American Flag painted at school that was never intended to offend anyone. I was ridiculed for not putting a BLM sign up at school when truly I have no issue with one being placed there. I have been informed our school does not do anything for people of color when I’ve been working really hard to educate our faculty to recognize issues related to discrimination and racism. The comments made about me, like in your Facebook post are so far from who I am as a person and it’s frustrating. I’m accused of not getting it or caring about black lives because it didn’t go to the rally on Sunday which so didn’t go because I have personal things going on. I’m struggling to get behind BLM, not because I disagree. I don’t disagree at all. It’s become a topic where you can’t say anything. All lives matter I’ve been told is the wrong thing to say. Employee PFT ¶ 79, Employee at 037.”
The Report gives details on the Superintendent asking that Riley take down her posting and apologize. It does not say that she was barred from making postings. It also makes this curious distinction after Riley objected to being called a “racist.”:
50. According to the Board’s review of Employee 25, the audio recording of the 4:00 PM June 11, 2020, telephone call:
a. There is no statement by Superintendent calling employee a “racist.” Superintendent stated that he did not think Employee is a racist, but that the Facebook post was “a racist post.” Employee 25 at ~ 17:35.
In fairness to the school district, I can see why a public statement on a sensitive issue can raise concerns and even lead to an inquiry. However, it is clear that Riley would not have been fired if she expressed support for BLM. Instead, she tried to explain why she felt it was possible to be anti-racist without adopting the BLM slogan. The result is a content-based act of discrimination. No where does the report state that Riley was prohibited from making public comments on her views of the issue. Indeed, teachers routinely make pro-BLM statements and I would be equally supportive if Riley was terminated for expressing support for BLM on Facebook.
The report is itself entirely “tone deaf” on its curtailment of free speech with a content-based termination. Riley should now move forward with her wrongful termination lawsuit and challenge the decision on free speech grounds. There are good-faith reasons to disagree with Riley’s view of BLM and her posting. I can also see why Williams was unsatisfied with suggested slogans that do not refer to combatting racism in her discussions with Riley.
It is also true that this all began with the painting of an American flag and there was little time to organize children making Riley’s proposed posters on BLM and countering racism. The time line begins on June 2 and the graduation is held on June 5. That is just three days. Five days after graduation, Riley posted her comment on Facebook.
Moreover, the District did not order Riley to take down the posting and there is no official rule against what she did as a private person. Indeed, the District knows that requiring teachers to express approved political or social positions on social media would be immediately countermanded by a court. Instead, it is attempting to regulate free speech while adopting transparent excuses for this termination. The Mount Ascutney School Board has decided to be plunge headlong into speech controls and will likely be forced to litigate that authority in court. That will come at considerable expense for the District’s taxpayers. However, these actions have already come at a considerable expense for free speech.