'Are they the moral police?': Fired Palatine teacher alleges District 211 violated First Amendment rights

Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 confirmed Wednesday it's being sued by a former teacher fired last year over controversial posts on her Facebook page, but otherwise declined to comment on the litigation.

"We are aware of the lawsuit," District 211 Communications Director Erin Holmes said. "At this point it is a legal issue and we as a district cannot comment on any details. We can confirm that our board approved a resolution at our July 2020 meeting regarding the suspension and dismissal of Ms. Hedgepeth."

Former Palatine High School social studies teacher Jeanne Hedgepeth is suing the district, two administrators and five school board members in federal court, alleging her July 2020 dismissal violated her First Amendment rights.

Palatine attorney Christine Svenson, who is representing Hedgepeth with the conservative group Judicial Watch, said the case raises the question of whether anyone can be fired for expressing themselves away from the workplace. The Facebook posts that led to Hedgepeth's firing were made when she was on summer break.

"What people really need to understand is that the school break had started and she was completely away from her job duties. I think that's really the outrageous part," Svenson said.

Hedgepeth's Facebook posts concerned the protests and riots that followed the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. According to the lawsuit, she posted from beach in Florida on May 31, 2020, "I don't want to go home tomorrow. Now that the civil war has begun I want to move."

When another person responded, "Follow your gut! Move!!!!!!!!!," Hedgepeth replied, "I need a gun and training." The other person said, "me too!"

When another person posted a meme suggesting that the riots could be ended with septic tank trucks with pressure cannons to hose the crowds down, Hedgepeth responded, "You think this would work?" The suit contends the remark was made in jest.

Hedgepeth posted a longer statement on June 1, 2020, that began, "I am about facts, truth seeking and love. I will speak on any topic I choose because I live in a free country. I find the term 'white privilege' as racist as the 'N' word. You have not walked in my shoes either so do not make assumptions about me and my so called privilege. You think America is racist? Then you have been hoodwinked by the white liberal establishment and race baiters like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton."

Svenson said that if District 211 officials fired Hedgepeth because they disagreed with her comments, it raises the question of whether they are parsing through the social media posts of all their employees.

"Are they the moral police then?" Svenson asked.

The federal lawsuit names as defendants District 211 as a whole, Superintendent Lisa Small, Director of Human Resources James Britton, and the five board of education members who voted in favor of Hedgepeth's dismissal - Kim Cavill, Anna Klimkowicz, Robert LeFevre Jr., Steve Rosenblum and Ed Yung. The board members that voted against the firing, Mark Cramer and Pete Dombrowski, are not listed as defendants.

The suit seeks undisclosed compensatory and punitive damages and reimbursement of legal fees.

In separate litigation, Hedgepeth also is suing board member Tim McGowan, who was not on the panel at the time of her dismissal. The suit, filed in Cook County court in March, alleges McGowan made false statements in a Facebook post and video in June 2020 in an effort to get Hedgepeth fired.

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