Do I have a legal leg to stand on?
August 17, 2010 2:59 PM   Subscribe

I believe that I've been wrongly accused by my employer of professional misconduct, but I'm not sure. What are my legal rights?

I work as a teacher in a private school, where I helped edit the student newsletter. Immediately before the latest edition was to come out, one of my superiors said that he wanted to have the next and subsequent editions of the newsletter reviewed by him before they are sent for printing.

I sent him the soft copy, told him we were behind schedule, and then informed the student team that the newsletter has to be delayed because he wants to look through them before they go out.

Long story short, my employer is now accusing me of breaching confidentiality. As the accusation is serious in my line of work, I want to know what my legal rights are.

a. Did I breach confidentiality when I informed the students that a member of the school management was looking through their work? Do I have a legal leg to stand on if I say that I was unfairly accused?

b. There was no indication in the e-mail that said that it was supposed to be confidential. Does he have a legal leg to stand on?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I am not a lawyer, but how could it have been confidential? What if they had decided some changes were in order? What were you supposed to tell the kids, that a magic fairy wants you to change the article? Something is odd here.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:05 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am an attorney, but I am not your attorney, and this is not legal advice.

As the accusation is serious in my line of work, I want to know what my legal rights are.

Then you should consult an employment lawyer, preferably one that has worked on cases in the private school context.

No one here can answer your questions for several reasons. First, we don't have all the necessary facts (e.g., do you have an employment contract? what about school policies? what jurisdiction is this in?). Second, for several reasons (tactical, legal, ethical, and practical), it would be unwise to conduct the necessary fact-gathering and advice-dispensing on a public forum such as this one. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

Consult a competent attorney in your jurisdiction as soon as possible.
posted by jedicus at 3:09 PM on August 17, 2010 [5 favorites]

Having just been in a situation where I had to lawyer up despite limited funds, I can wholeheartedly say that while it may seem expensive, it is WORTH IT. jedicus is right; we can't answer this, but a good employment attorney can.

What you want (at first, anyway) is a consultation. Get recommendations for employment attorneys, or do research to find them in your area. Call around and ask what their consultation fees are. Don't just choose the cheapest. Choose the one who you think will do the job well. After a consultation, you may have all the information you need to proceed, or you may need to retain your attorney for further action.

Regardless, get yourself an attorney now.
posted by ocherdraco at 3:20 PM on August 17, 2010

while gathering lawyers names, i'd probably do a call to the ACLU as this involves a student newsletter.
posted by nadawi at 3:25 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Despite the doubtlessly good advice that people are giving you to speak to an actual lawyer, I still agree with JohhnyGunn. The students already know that their newspaper is edited by you. That is not a secret. They also know that you are an employee and you therefore may be subject to instructions from your employer. So there is nothing confidential going on here. The accusation is silly.
posted by grizzled at 3:26 PM on August 17, 2010

Are all admin to teacher/staff emails supposed to be confidential? You might want to check your contract or any communication about this (faculty handbook, etc.)

School censorship of student newspapers is a real hot button for a lot of schools. If he wasn't planning on telling the students about his review, I'm sure the parents of the students would be interested.

The Student Press Law Center might be worth contacting.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:27 PM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

Call the Student Press Law Center. I interned there and did my research on the rights of advisers. They can provide you some initial guidance and, if necessary, get you in touch with lawyers in your jurisdiction.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:40 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is exactly what the SPLC is for.
posted by grouse at 3:48 PM on August 17, 2010

Also, consider joining the Journalism Education Association. You would have many more helpful contacts there.
posted by grouse at 3:50 PM on August 17, 2010

I'm not big on yelling DONT LISTEN TO ANYONE JUST GET A LAWYER to everyone with even the slightest hint of a legal angle to a problem but in this case there is simply no way anyone can possibly answer your question. There are far too many facts missing from your question and so on. You're going to have to talk to a lawyer for legal advice and even for layperson non-legal advice you need to talk to someone who knows the actual facts of what is going on.

In my completely non-legal analysis this sure seems sketchy but for all I know you signed a contract saying that doing what you did would be considered a breach of ethics. I mean, I doubt you did but I have no actual way of knowing and neither does anyone else here.
posted by Justinian at 5:08 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

It would have to hinge on whether confidentiality between school management and teacher was assumed or if it were flat-out stated in their contract (assuming also a contract). But I find it hard to believe it could be assumed, and even if it were specified I wonder how enforceable it would be.

This sounds like someone blustering because they're worried about getting caught doing something they're not supposed to be doing, particularly 1st amendment "somethings" like requiring all articles to go through a school's management without informing the people this will be affecting.

Complete speculation on my part, by the way.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:24 PM on August 17, 2010

1- Don't sign anything unless you speak to a lawyer.
2- Nothing will probably come of this.
3-If you do get "called into the office" for an official chat, step one is to not say anything without a union rep, and step two is get the lawyer.
4- If it was me, I would tell them to quit being babies and either exonerate me, or fire me. It sounds like the superior is the one with something to lose here. But that's just me.
posted by gjc at 8:06 PM on August 17, 2010

nth-ing everybody's advice to talk to a lawyer - - but keep in mind that your supposed misconduct consisted of telling your students the truth.

Your school administration might think differently - but it's likely that they'd be alone in this; it's hard to see how anyone else could possibly construe telling the truth to your students as a bad thing.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 8:40 PM on August 17, 2010

Do you have a union? If so, they'd be the best people to start with even if the only thing they can do is find you the right kind of lawyer.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:32 AM on August 18, 2010

I'm guessing that the OP doesn't have a union since it's private school, right?

If I were to guess, one of the kids told their helicopter parents (in perhaps a teenagery-not-getting-all-the-facts-right way) that their newspaper was being looked over by the principal, the parent contacted the principal and there was parental talk of censorship, civil rights and possibly the threat of a lawsuit.

Backed into a corner and looking for someone to blame, the principal chose you.

I don't think you did anything wrong here, but if it were me (having had the occasional run-in with the admins at my school over my enthusiastic "maverick" tendencies), I'd meet with the principal to go over the sequence of events and try to get an understanding as to why they perceive this as breaching confidentiality.

Worst case, there is some rule you don't know about, but then the fault is theirs for not informing you of this rule.

Best case, the principal realizes they overreacted.
posted by dzaz at 4:06 AM on August 18, 2010

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