Jury shoots down First Amendment claims of former Sullivan County teacher

By: - October 5, 2022 6:01 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))

A federal jury has rejected the free-speech claims of a Sullivan County teacher suspended after parents complained about his expletive-laced social media posts on topics ranging from masking during the COVID pandemic to former President Donald Trump.

In what was the first test case of a U.S. Supreme Court landmark decision granting First Amendment speech protection to the prayers of Washington state high school football coach Joe Kennedy, a jury in U.S. District Court in Greenville, Tenn., last week ruled against former Sullivan County teacher Jeremy McLaughlin.

McLaughlin was suspended for three days without pay in September 2020 after parents complained about social media posts he made while off-duty. Citing the Kennedy decision, McLaughlin insisted then-Sullivan County Schools chief David Cox violated his free-speech rights.

Cox countered that although McLaughlin’s profanity-filled posts supporting masking and opposing Trump were unprofessional and factored into his suspension decision, the commentary was not the sole basis for it.

Instead, Cox pointed to another social media post in which McLaughlin appeared to encourage people outside the Sullivan County school system to vote against in-person learning in what was supposed to be a survey of teachers within the school system.

In the run-up to last week’s trial, a judge ruled McLaughlin’s social media posts on hot-bed political controversies were protected speech. What was not protected was McLaughlin’s social media urgings to his followers to participate in a poll about school re-openings meant only for teachers. 

“Such dishonest behavior was tantamount to cheating, and, therefore, remained punishable as conduct unbecoming of a professional teacher,” attorney Chris McCarty wrote on behalf of Cox in a pre-trial statement of facts.

After a two-day trial last week, jurors sided with Cox.

“Has Director Cox proven by a preponderance of the evidence that he would have taken the same action to suspend Jeremy McLaughlin for three days even in the absence of all (his) protected speech?” the verdict form read. “Yes.”

Although McLaughlin lost his case, he was successful in testing the bounds of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that granted free-speech protection to Kennedy, who was fired for praying on the 50-yard line after football games.

In the run-up to last week’s trial, U.S. District Judge Clifton Corker ruled McLaughlin’s social media posts on hot-bed political controversies were protected speech under the Kennedy decision. That ruling put the burden on Cox to prove he suspended McLaughlin for reasons other than those controversial posts.

At trial, McCarty argued Cox did, in fact, have another reason for his suspension decision — McLaughlin’s suggestion on social media that outsiders could cast votes in an August 2020 online survey designed to only poll Sullivan County teachers on whether the school system should return to in-person learning.

McLaughlin, court records show, posted a link to the survey on his Facebook page and wrote, “If you were a teacher and had the anonymous link, you should fill it out.”

Suspension followed parent’s upset

The brouhaha over McLaughlin’s social media posts began after a contentious Sullivan County Board of Education meeting in August 2020 at which more than a dozen parents and students urged the board to reopen schools, which had been shut down in the early months of the pandemic.

After McLaughlin spoke up at the meeting in favor of continued on-line instruction, parent Mandi Mittelsteadt took to Facebook to complain about McLaughlin and posted copies of McLaughlin’s social media posts she deemed objectionable. She wrote a letter of complaint to Cox and urged other parents to do the same. A handful did. Cox suspended McLaughlin soon after.

The posts Mittelsteadt cited as objectionable centered on masking and Trump, although she also included a complaint about the survey post.

“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.”

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.”

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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.