First Amendment arguments rejected in Florida charter school case

A federal appeals court has ruled against two Miami-Dade County educators who argued that their First Amendment rights were violated when they were disciplined for working to convert a school they headed to a charter school.

A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided Friday with the Miami-Dade County School Board in the case filed by Alberto Fernandez and Henny Cristobol. The pair served as principal and assistant principal, respectively, of Neva King Cooper Educational Center, a public school that serves children with disabilities, and in 2011 began looking at the possibility of converting it to a charter school.

In early 2012, after meeting with Neva King Cooper’s school-advisory council and faculty about the issue, Fernandez notified the school board of his intention to hold a vote of parents and teachers about conversion. The appeals court ruling said the conversion idea “unraveled,” but the school board began an investigation and gave Fernandez and Cristobol other assignments while the investigation was pending.

The investigation involved issues such as whether they had inappropriately devoted school time and resources to the conversion effort.

The School Board ultimately found that the educators were subject to discipline, which led in 2015 to the federal lawsuit alleging violation of First Amendment rights.

But a U.S. district judge ruled against Fernandez and Cristobol, finding that because they “plainly spoke in the course of their official duties, their speech did not enjoy First Amendment protection,” the appeals court ruling said.

The three-judge panel upheld that finding.

“The long and short of it is that the principal and assistant principal of Neva King Cooper Educational Center spearheaded this charter school conversion pursuant to their official duties,” said the 23-page decision, written by appeals-court Judge Stanley Marcus and joined by judges Charles Wilson and Marcia Morales Howard.

“They may not sue the School Board under the First Amendment.” The ruling said Fernandez and Cristobol were not reinstated to their positions at Neva King Cooper, with Fernandez moving to a different job in the school district and Cristobol becoming principal of a charter school.

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