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Amid the increased awareness of racial justice issues across the country, displaying a Black Lives Matter flag has sometimes generated arguments over free speech. In Jacksonville, Fla., a white high school teacher was disciplined after she put one up outside her classroom and refused administrators' orders to take it down. Now the case is in court. From member station WJCT news in Jacksonville, Sydney Boles reports.
SYDNEY BOLES, BYLINE: In her nine years teaching at Jacksonville's Robert E. Lee High School, Amy Donofrio has built up a reputation. In 2016, her life skills class met with then-President Barack Obama and presented at Harvard University. Students at the predominantly Black, low-income school counted on her for everything from packets of ramen noodles to career counseling. And when one of her students, Reginald Boston, was killed by the local police last year, the Black Lives Matter flag outside Donofrio's classroom marked it as a safe space for students to process his death. Here's Donofrio.
AMY DONOFRIO: His life mattered - period. And I think walking beside his family and his mom and seeing what it looks like in real life, there is no possible way you can't stand by the belief that Black Lives Matter.
BOLES: Then this March, the Duval County School District told Donofrio to take the flag down, saying it violated district policy on political speech by employees. Donofrio said no, so she was taken out of the classroom and reassigned to nonteaching duties. The school district says it won't comment because of ongoing litigation. A lawsuit filed in federal court by the Southern Poverty Law Center alleges the flag's removal was a violation of Donofrio's First Amendment rights. Civil rights attorney Cathleen Scott is representing Donofrio alongside the SPLC.
CATHLEEN SCOTT: It's a question of whether or not there's a matter of great public significance as to whether or not the speech is protected. Ms. Donofrio was speaking out against racism. That's a very important value.
BOLES: But that argument might face an uphill battle in court, says Rachel Arnow-Richman, a professor of labor and employment law at the University of Florida.
RACHEL ARNOW-RICHMAN: We think of the First Amendment as a foundational principle of our democracy, and it is, but it's subject to many limitations.
BOLES: Arnow-Richman says public employers, like school districts, have a lot of leeway to regulate their employees' speech. But, she argues, the law may not have fully wrestled with society's conflicting goals.
ARNOW-RICHMAN: And that's to say this sort of general rule that public employees do not speak for themselves but speak for the government and lack First Amendment protection is at odds, I would say, with our societal interest in wanting teachers to have leeway to communicate and teach students about current issues, bringing to bear their expertise as educators.
BOLES: Back at Robert E. Lee High, Donofrio says it's stressful to sue her employer, but it also feels like a relief.
DONOFRIO: There are educators all over this country that want to stand with our children, that are advocating for our children and are being retaliated and pushed back upon as a result. And so my goal, my hope, is that by doing this, we can empower more educators to stand beside our kids.
BOLES: Meanwhile, Donofrio's students are leading their own campaign. An online petition to bring her back to the classroom has garnered more than 16,000 signatures.
For NPR News I'm Sydney Boles in Jacksonville, Fla.
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