Editorial: No winners in Windsor

Published: 01-30-2023 11:36 AM

While one hears frequently of “win-win” propositions, it’s much rarer to hear one described as a “lose-lose.” That, however, appears to us to be the case in the settlement of former Windsor School Principal Tiffany Riley’s federal lawsuit alleging wrongful termination.

Riley, who was fired as the result of her social media posts about the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, got $650,000 in the settlement, which was negotiated between her lawyers and the Vermont School Boards Insurance Trust on behalf of the Mount Ascutney School Board, the Windsor Southeast

Supervisory Union and individual district officials. Of the total, Riley will receive $191,250 in wages for the 20 months that were remaining on her contract when she was fired; and $233,750 for alleged violations of her civil rights. The remainder will go to her lawyers.

She also secured a handsome letter of recommendation as part of the settlement, which was perhaps just as important from her point of view. As she told the Vermont Standard, she applied for 50 school jobs after she was fired and did not get a single response. But, as she also told the Woodstock-area weekly, she has learned from the whole experience that nobody ever wins in litigation.

That certainly goes for school officials as well, although the settlement explicitly includes a no-admission-of-liability clause. Because they acted in haste in substantively firing Riley, they left themselves open to her due process claims. In a pre-trial ruling in 2021, federal Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford wrote that the “undisputed facts” demonstrated that the school district failed to follow proper procedures in terminating her employment. This is a cautionary and costly mistake for any public employer. And if the letter of recommendation included in the settlement reflects its good-faith views, as we must assume is the case, the district lost a highly valued employee who had made significant contributions.

This does not absolve Riley herself of all responsibility for this bruising experience. Her original post on her personal Facebook page, in the context of an ongoing debate in the community about Black Lives Matter, was at the very least provocative and predictably drew objections when it became more widely recirculated on social media. While the first part of that message has been repeatedly reproduced in news stories, the second part caught our attention on rereading it: “While I understand the urgency to feel compelled to advocate for black lives, what about our fellow law enforcement? What about all others who advocate for and demand equity for all? Just because I don’t walk around with a BLM sign should not mean I am racist.”

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This could certainly be read as closely identifying herself with law enforcement at a time when thousands of Americans were protesting the killing of unarmed Black men by white police officers. And the last line makes us wonder if anyone was actually accusing her of being a racist. Perhaps the answer will be clearer when she completes a book on the whole affair, which she told the Standard she is finishing.

Among the civil rights claims Riley made in her lawsuit, the one that has drawn the most attention is alleged infringement of First Amendment rights. What was once a simple question when it came to public employees has grown more complicated over time. In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a public employee’s exercise of free speech could be grounds for dismissal: “There may be a constitutional right to talk politics,” wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., “but there is no constitutional right to be a policeman” (or any public employee). Since then, however, the court has evolved a different standard, making clear that public employees do not surrender all their First Amendment rights by reason of their employment. What’s required of judges is to apply a balancing test between an employee’s speech rights and a governmental body’s right to effectively further its mission.

In this context, the Riley case raises in our mind the question of whether her Facebook post about Black Lives Matter should be construed as only a private expression of opinion — or whether by the very nature of her leadership role in the community and the ubiquity of social media, the expression of her views was bound to attract widespread attention and undermine her ability as principal to act as a unifying force in a divisive time. Presumably, that question would have been answered had the case gone to trial.

It’s also notable that the settlement agreement includes a joint statement to the effect that “the parties regret that miscommunications and misunderstandings distracted from their shared focus on educating students.” In that light, maybe the whole mess is best characterized as a lose-lose-lose.