Former Sullivan County teacher tests U.S. Supreme Court ruling on First Amendment in suit

By: - July 25, 2022 7:00 am
Now-shuttered Sullivan Central High School, at which Jeremy McLaughlin taught prior to his resignation. (Photo: Facebook, Sullivan Central High School))

Now-shuttered Sullivan Central High School, at which Jeremy McLaughlin taught prior to his resignation. (Photo: Facebook, Sullivan Central High School))

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled the prayers of Washington state high school football coach at the 50-yard line after games are protected free speech and now a Tennessee teacher claims his  expletive-laced social media posts on topics ranging from masking during the COVID pandemic to former President Donald Trump are also protected.

A lawsuit filed by former Sullivan County teacher Jeremy McLaughlin — suspended for three days without pay over posts he made to social media while off-duty — is set to become the first test case in Tennessee of the recent court decision that granted First Amendment speech protection to the prayers of Washington state high school football coach Joe Kennedy, court records show.

McLaughlin contends in his U.S. District Court lawsuit he became the target of a witch hunt by parents angered over his speech in support of virtual learning and pro-masking at a Sullivan County Board of Education meeting in August 2020.

After that meeting, at least four parents wrote letters to then-Sullivan County Schools chief David Cox and the school board, demanding McLaughlin be fired over posts McLaughlin made on Facebook in the months preceding his speech, according to documents reviewed by the Tennessee Lookout.

Cox suspended McLaughlin in September 2020 for three days without pay as a result, records show.

Former Sullivan County teacher Jeremy McLaughlin cites the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to permit a Washington State high school football coach to pray on the football field in a suit against his former employer.

“As you know, we recently received a number of complaints about you, and we have been processing and investigating the same,” Cox wrote in the suspension letter. “… You have every right to express your opinions during non-school hours, even on Facebook. But you still need to behave professionally in public settings and set appropriate standards for our students.

“I truly regret that it has come to this, Mr. McLaughlin. From your students’ comments, I have every reason to believe that you have been and will continue to be a good and valuable teacher for Sullivan County Schools,” the letter concluded.

After McLaughlin unsuccessfully appealed Cox’s decision, he quit his teaching post and filed suit. The case is set for trial before U.S. District Judge Clifton Corker in September. In a motion filed earlier this month, McLaughlin attorney Richard Colbert argues the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling in the praying coach case should apply to McLaughlin.

“The court rejected the notion that the school district could script whatever a teacher or coach says in the workplace,” Colbert wrote in the motion. “Here, (in Laughlin’s case), the (school system’s) purported justification for penalizing McLaughlin’s speech is even more tenuous. Kennedy’s speech was off duty at his workplace. McLaughlin’s social media speech was off duty away from his workplace.”

‘I was flabbergasted’

The August 2020 meeting of the Sullivan County Board of Education was a contentious one. The board was weighing several hotbed issues surrounding the COVID pandemic, including whether to resume in-person learning and impose a mask mandate.

Mandi Mittelsteadt’s daughter was the first to speak during the board’s public forum. She urged the board to reopen schools. She was followed by several adult speakers, all of whom supported the resumption of in-person learning.

McLaughlin later spoke against opening schools, arguing it wasn’t safe for teachers or students to return to the classroom because COVID cases were still running high months after the schools switched to virtual learning.

Mittelsteadt was upset, calling McLaughlin “dismissive” of her daughter, according to a letter she penned to the school board two days after the meeting.

“Imagine yourself as a 15-year-old student who made the brave decision to speak in front of the school board, then to have a teacher be dismissive toward you,” Mittelsteadt wrote. “Do you understand the bravery it took for her to get up there and then for that to happen?”

By her own account in the letter, Mittelsteadt took to Facebook to complain about McLaughlin and, after conducting a review of his social media posts, posted copies on her Facebook page of posts she found objectionable.

“I was flabbergasted by what I saw,” Mittelsteadt wrote of McLaughlin’s social media posts. “After my post went public, I have received more messages than I can count. Parents have reached out with their experiences with McLaughlin and, in the words of many, he is liked by the staff at (Central High), but he is hated and disliked by the parents and a lot of students.” (Editor’s note: Sullivan Central High School was merged with West Ridge High School in 2021.)

Two days after Mittelsteadt filed her complaint letter with the board, three people who saw Mittelsteadt’s Facebook post also filed letters of complaint against McLaughlin. The names of those three people are redacted from federal court exhibits reviewed by the Tennessee Lookout.

“I am sure you have seen these public Facebook posts and heard all about Mr. McLaughlin,” one letter stated. “I just want to share my complete disgust with this man, and I find it very disturbing a person like this is permitted in our school system.”

“I would like to be clear – I am a conservative,” another letter stated. “I don’t align with his thinking. However, I’m also not one who is threatened by anyone who feels differently than I … Initially, I stood in defense of him … I’ve since come to learn that Mr. McLaughlin is widely known for expressing his opinions and quite comfortable doing so. One parent informed me that (McLaughlin) had an entire presentation on the white board of Hillary (Clinton). How does that pertain to physics?”

sullivan letter and examples of posts

Ron Burgundy and Donald Trump

The letter writers, including Mittelsteadt, included copies of the social media posts by McLaughlin they found objectionable. Cox relied upon those Facebook posts, described below, as a basis for his suspension decision.

“Please stop clapping for nurses and giving them a (expletive) raise. Sincerely, teachers,” McLaughlin posted on May 7, 2020.

“If you’re in public and you’re not wearing a mask, please know that you are part of the problem,” McLaughlin wrote in a June 25, 2020, post. “You don’t know if you have it. You don’t know if you’re spreading it. You are keeping everyone from moving out of this crisis because you are a spoiled, selfish child.”

That post included a meme depicting the fictional character Ron Burgundy in the Anchorman movies and a Burgundy’ catchphrase: “Go (expletive) yourself, San Diego.”

A July 2020, McLaughlin post stated, “Not wearing a mask doesn’t make you look strong. It makes you look like a selfish piece of (expletive). Saying you have a medical condition and you can’t wear a mask makes you look like a lying selfish piece of (expletive).”

That post also included a meme — a screenshot from a viral YouTube video unrelated to masking that shows a student seated at a computer station and pointing his finger and a second student smiling toward the camera.

“Saw a guy at Food City walking around in an iridescent blue fishnet face mask,” McLaughlin wrote in another July 2020 post at issue in the case. “Brother, you don’t look clever. You look like you’re wearing your side chick’s panties on your face.”

Former Sullivan County teacher Jeremy McLaughlin. (Photo: LinkedIn)
Former Sullivan County teacher Jeremy McLaughlin. (Photo: LinkedIn)

McLaughlin also posted in July 2020 a news story with a photograph of former President Donald Trump and the headline, “Trump floats delaying the November election. He does not have that authority.” McLaughlin wrote on that post, “Absolutely (expletive) not.”

In an August 2020 post, McLaughlin featured a copy of a tweet from a man who wrote, “My son is wearing a (Make America Great Again) cap and a Vote Trump 2020 button. He’s been spat on, punched and verbally abused. I hate to think what will happen when he leaves the house.”

McLaughlin wrote in response to the copy of the tweet, “Father of the year.”

Also in August 2020, McLaughlin posted a screenshot from a Sullivan County Schools online survey of teachers designed to allow educators to weigh in on whether they supported in-person learning or a “hybrid” combination of in-person learning and virtual schooling.

“Great unbiased survey of Sullivan County Schools teachers,” McLaughlin wrote. “Remember that coffins are priced by the cubic foot.”

In comments below the post, McLaughlin provided a link for the survey and wrote, “It’s interesting how survey gizmo uses cookies to track if you’ve responded or not. If you’re in incognito mode, it’s like it doesn’t even know that you voted. Weird! If you were a teacher and had the anonymous link, you should fill it out.”

“Well,” a woman posted in the comment thread. “Wouldn’t it be a shame if a non Sullivan County teacher were to get a hold of that anonymous survey? Hmm… Oopsies. My bad.” She then posted a screenshot of what appears to be her completion of the teacher survey.

Sullivan attorney: Suspension righteous

Attorney Chris McCarty, who is defending Sullivan County in the case, contends McLaughlin wasn’t suspended “because of (his) comments on matters of public concern,” which would be protected free speech.

“(McLaughlin) was suspended based on unprofessional behavior while utilizing social media,” McCarty wrote in a motion. “In addition to a multitude of posts with profane language and condescending memes, (the school system) discovered that (McLaughlin) had publicized (a Sullivan County Schools) private teacher survey and offered suggestions as to how the survey results could be manipulated.

“The decision to suspend (McLaughlin) for three days was based on the information that he posted to his public account that indicated his misconduct and unprofessional behavior, including the information he disclosed about the private (teacher) survey, his characterization of students and use of profanity,” McCarty continued.

“At least three non-faculty members participated in the survey using (McLaughlin’s) link and instructions,” McCarty wrote. “(McLaughlin’s) unprofessional behavior undermined a legitimate goal or mission of the school system and destroyed the relationship of loyalty and trust required of confidential employees.”

McCarty insisted in court filings McLaughlin’s suspension was “not influenced by any email from the parents that complained about (McLaughlin) or that requested, either implicitly or explicitly, that (McLaughlin’s) employment should be terminated.”

In a response to the high court’s praying coach decision, McCarty argued there is a vast difference between Kennedy’s prayers and McLaughlin’s posts.

“(McLaughlin) chose to share posts that placed young people in a denigrating light, with ones that even brought into question (McLaughlin’s) ability to keep his classroom open to varying points of view and to maintain a professional approach with students,” McCarty wrote.

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Jamie Satterfield
Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield is an investigative journalist with more than 33 years of experience, specializing in legal affairs, policing, public corruption, environmental crime and civil rights violations. Her journalism has been honored as some of the best in the nation, earning recognition from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the Green Eyeshade Awards, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Managing Editors Association, the First Amendment Center and many other industry organizations. Her work has led to criminal charges against wrongdoers, changes in state law and citations in legal opinions and journals. She was married to the love of her life for 28 years and is now a widow and proud mother of two successful children of good character and work ethic.