Johnson v. Poway Unified School District

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Constitutional Law
  • Date Filed: 09-13-2011
  • Case #: 10-55445
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Tallman for the Court; Circuit Judges Silverman and Clifton
  • Full Text Opinion

Restrictions by a public school on a teacher’s classroom speech in his or her role as a teacher before a captive audience of students, is subject to the “sequential five-step” inquiry under Pickering, not a forum-based analysis.

Bradley Johnson, a high school math teacher, displayed large banners in his classroom emphasizing references to God as found in various phrases and slogans from National history such as “One Nation Under God,” “God Bless America,” and “All Men are Created Equal They Are Endowed By Their CREATOR.” School officials ordered Johnson to take down the banners. Johnson filed suit in district court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief alleging his rights were violated under the First and Fourteenth amendments and under the California Constitution. The district court awarded summary judgment to Johnson. The Ninth Circuit found that the district court erred on the First amendment speech issue by resting its decision on Tinker and a limited public forum line of analysis. The Court said that the “sequential five-step” inquiry under Pickering is the appropriate test. The Court held that Johnson spoke as a government employee, as his ability to decorate the classroom walls for a captive audience of students was owed to his position as a teacher. The Court further held that the speech was unrelated to his role as a math teacher; therefore, the school did not violate his rights under the First amendment by ordering the banners removed. The Court reversed the district court’s award of summary judgment and remanded with instructions to enter summary judgment in favor of Poway on all claims. REVERSED and REMANDED with instructions.

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