Court Dismisses Teacher’s Section 1983 & 1st and 14th Amendment Claims Arising From Alleged Showing of Pornographic Film to Students

In Murray v. Williamsville Central School District, 2021 WL 1610201 (WDNY April 26, 2021), the court, inter alia, dismissed various constitutional claims asserted by plaintiff – a middle school teacher – who alleges that his employer (the defendant school district) deprived him of his liberty interest in his reputation and free speech rights after he was suspended for allegedly showing pornography to students.

Plaintiff’s First Cause of Action – which alleges a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by unlawful deprivation of Plaintiff’s liberty interest, namely his good name and reputation – turned on “whether one’s reputation and good name by themselves is a liberty interest recognized under the Due Process Clause.”

The court noted the evolution of, and change in, the Supreme Court’s position on this issue, culminating in this synthesis:

[W]ith Paul [v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693, 694, 721, 96 S.Ct. 1185, 47 L.Ed.2d 405 (1976)]’s rejection of Jenkins [v. McKeithen, 395 U.S. 411, 423-24, 89 S.Ct. 1843, 23 L.Ed.2d 404 (1969)] and the stand-alone reputation liberty interest, loss of reputation is actionable as a liberty interest only if combined with another deprivation. This would allege a stigma-plus claim, where the stigma alleged is the loss of reputation and the plus is the other deprivation (such as the termination of employment).

Applying the law to the facts, the court explained:

Plaintiff’s claims here, however, are for loss of his reputation without a recognized due process violation, such as unlawful termination. Plaintiff was suspended but he does not allege how long he was suspended. The Complaint does not state whether Plaintiff was suspended as of the filing of the Complaint or the consequences arising from that suspension (for example, whether it was without pay, loss of credit for retirement or tenure purposes). The Complaint later alleges that Plaintiff remained employed by Defendant. It is not clear that this suspension is the equivalent to a termination that would be the “plus” to allege an actionable stigma-plus claim from the harm to his reputation. [Citation omitted.]

Based on this, the court held that plaintiff “has not alleged the’plus’ for the stigma-plus claim.”

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