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Instructor investigated, on leave for Facebook posts blaming the devil for Pride event

Alabama college violates First Amendment by investigating instructor for private social media posts
Boot kicking a worker

Alabama’s Wallace State Community College placed an instructor on administrative leave and launched an investigation after she posted on Facebook that “the devil is attacking” her town because of an LGBTQ Pride event and that “the Nazis . . . got some things right.” While the posts caused offense, they are nonetheless protected by the First Amendment.

According to local news reports, on Sept. 26, Wallace State history instructor Leigh Ann Courington posted on her personal, private Facebook page:

The devil is attacking our beautiful town of Cullman now apparently . . . and the police chief is in on it? I heard he was a crazy-ass liberal but this??? We need a rally by the you-know-what to put an end to this foolishness. Of course, it may be as well-attended as the Juneteenth event the white liberal weirdos tried to do a few years ago in Hanceville. 

Courington’s post was in response to an upcoming local Pride event, Cullman Comes Out, set to occur Oct. 8. That same day, Courington also posted:

YES!!! WHY are ‘Nazis’/’Hitler’ always the ‘go to’ insult ??? No mention of Communists who killed MILLIONS OF CHRISTIANS. It’s because ‘they’ want to demonize nationalism, and pride in being white, and standing up against sexual deviancy. Say what you will about the Nazis but at least they got some things right!

Screenshots of Courington’s comments were re-posted on social media, drawing attention — and condemnation — from the public. On Sept. 28, Wallace State released a statement denouncing Courington’s posts and announcing it had placed her on administrative leave pending an investigation.

Today, FIRE wrote to Wallace State explaining that its actions violate Courington’s First Amendment rights. As we said:

Whether speech is protected by the First Amendment is “a legal, not moral, analysis,”  and Courington’s posts do not fall into any category of expression unprotected by the First Amendment—such as true threats, obscenity, or harassment. The “bedrock principle underlying” freedom of expression is that speech may not be limited “simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable[.]”  It is this counter-majoritarian principle that protects “insulting, and even outrageous, speech in order to provide adequate breathing space” for public debate,  recognizing that those with authority “cannot make principled distinctions” between what speech is sufficiently offensive or inoffensive to suppress.

The First Amendment exists to provide protection for the most controversial speech, even when it concerns sensitive topics like LGBTQ rights or race. 

Wallace State must immediately end its investigation, reinstate her, and commit to upholding faculty’s expressive rights.

Public colleges like Wallace State have a responsibility to protect faculty and students’ First Amendment rights on campus. They also have a duty to address discriminatory harassment when it occurs. But Courington’s posts do not meet the legal standard for discriminatory harassment in the educational context, as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education. As we explained in our letter:

For conduct to meet this standard, it must be so “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” that it limits a reasonable person’s access to educational resources.  Courington’s posts were not severe or pervasive, as they were one-time posts on social media not directed or targeted at any specific individual. Students who were offended by the posts found out about them only after they were screenshotted and re-distributed online. Additionally, because the posts do not deprive or limit individuals’ access to educational resources, Courington’s posts cannot constitute discriminatory harassment.

Because Courington’s posts are constitutionally protected, Wallace State must immediately end its investigation, reinstate her, and commit to upholding faculty’s expressive rights — even in the face of pressure to censor them.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).

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