Sunday, December 4, 2011

Evangelizing Through School Email?

A Florida school administrator is crying foul after receiving a string of religiously and politically oriented emails sent to him by his immediate superior through official channels.

Patrick Capriola, the assistant principal of the Bannerman Learning Center, a public alternative school in Green Cove Springs, Fla., has filed suit against the Clay County School District and Bannerman’s principal, Linda Turner, claiming his constitutional rights were violated when Turner sent him and other school employees emails containing religious and political messages. In his lawsuit, which was filed in the US District Court in the Middle District of Florida on Nov. 18, Capriola claims Turner violated the Establishment Clause by using her official school email account to send a majority of the emails in question, which he argues were designed to “impose her religious views” on the school’s staff.

The emails mentioned in the lawsuit cover a variety of topics, ranging from an encouragement for all school staff to “to pray for rain in the name of Jesus for the State of Texas” to “an explicitly religious and proselytizing sermon-like viewpoint” on 9/11. Other emails are more political in nature and make fun of President Obama.

In filing his lawsuit, Carpriola seeks monetary damages for emotional pain and suffering. He has also requested that an injunction be granted that would bar Turner from sending any more emails to school employees containing “prayer and other religious proselytizing,” which would end what he calls Turner’s “endorsement and promotion of specific political [and religious] doctrine.”

Capriola’s lawsuit has two main claims: 1.) That his constitutional rights were violated when Turner sent him religiously and politically oriented emails; and 2.) That Turner violated the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution when she sent said emails using her official school email account.

The problem with Capriola’s first claim is that he has failed to highlight which of his constitutional rights were violated when Turner sent him the emails in question. Last time I checked, the Constitution did not include protections against being offended or annoyed by the actions of others. Unless he can highlight specific instances of Turner violating his rights, Capriola is unlikely to receive anything other than nominal damages (typically $1).

Capriola’s second claim, however, is much more interesting. Did Turner violate the Establishment Clause by sending religiously oriented emails to her subordinates using her official school email account? To answer this question, two other questions must be answered first: 1.) Are there any regulations or policies in the Clay County School District that dictate how official school email accounts can and cannot be used?; and 2.) In what capacity (official or unofficial) did Turner send the emails?

Analyzing the current policies (or lack thereof) regarding the use of government property and resources in Clay County will have a major impact on the outcome of this case. If there is a policy, either in written form or adopted as tradition by the school district, that prohibits the use of official email accounts for unofficial purposes, then Turner would clearly be in the wrong. However, even if such a policy exists, it would not necessarily prove that she violated the Establishment Clause, only that she violated local policy. In the end, it would all depend on what the “reasonable observer” would think. The courts tend to err on the side of a conservative definition of the reasonable observer, which means that if there is a regulatory policy regarding official email use, the court would most likely rule that the reasonable observer would view the content of the emails as “official,” and thus in violation of the Establishment Clause. However, if there is no such regulatory policy, the answer would be much more ambiguous.

The other, more important, element to analyze is in what context did Turner send the email, i.e. as the principal or as a private citizen. Had Turner sent the emails in her official capacity as the principal of the school, there would be an establishment issue because the requests for prayer would have been akin to an order given by Turner to her subordinates. However, it is evident by the content of the emails that requests for prayer were exactly that: requests. Everything Turner sent was sent in an unofficial capacity (i.e. she sent the emails as private citizen Turner, not Principal Turner). The fact that she used official channels for her unofficial communications only displays her foolishness, but does not constitute an establishment of religion.

Based on the evidence, I argue that Turner is guilty of nothing more than unwisely using her official email account. There is no evidence of any regulatory policies regarding how school employees can use their email accounts, nor is there any indication that Turner intended to coerce anyone into preforming any religious act using her position as their superior. The fact that the emails mentioned in the lawsuit came from a combination of both Turner’s official and personal email accounts is further proof that she intended them to be viewed in an unofficial capacity. It appears that she sent the emails to her subordinates using the email account linked to where she was located when she sent them (i.e. she used the official account when at school and the personal account when at home). In the future, any emails of this nature should be sent using only Turner’s personal account (although it would be wise for her to stop sending them altogether).


PamelaR said...

I disagree that the fact that Turner sent emails from both her official and personal email accounts means that she meant to send them not as the principal, but in a personal manner--if she meant them in solely a personal capacity, she never should have used her work email at all. By using her school email address she was definitely representing herself as the Principal and not a private citizen; whether this violates the establishment clause, I'm not sure.

Harry R. said...

I agree with Christopher that, while the use of the school email may have been unwise, such usage was most likely legal. I believe that the use of both school and personal email accounts shows the private nature of the principal's speech. She was trying to spread her viewpoint in a manner separate from her school office. Additionally, I believe that it is an important fact that the emails never asked for any actions be taken as a group or on school grounds. An email recipient could pray or not pray absent any coercion from others.

Annie M said...

I do not think that because she used her work email address that she was trying to be inappropriate or use her power as the principal to establish a religion. I agree with Christopher that it was simply foolishness on her part, by no means had she thought about it prior to sending the emails. She was using her free speech by voicing her viewpoint that was suppose to be separate from her job as the principal.

Allison S said...

I agree with Annie and Christopher that the principal’s actions were somewhat thoughtless. I do not believe that by utilizing her personal email her actions were an establishment of religion. If she had coerced her coworkers into attending worship services or partake in other religious actions with her that would be blatant establishment. Since she only recommended prayer through email there is no actual coercion. Overall I think this principal was thoughtless but there is no establishment of religion in this situation.

Callie B said...

I disagree with several of the previous comments. Just because she did not require her recipients to attend a religious activity does not mean that they did not feel coerced to for the sake of their job. By using her school address, Turner seems to favor one particular religion and promote it's ideals and norms. She should be required to use a personal address for future emails of this nature. This would not be an infringement on free exercise as she can still send the emails and switching accounts is not a substantial burden.

Kathryn M. said...

Turner is acting as the principal of her school by sending emails through her official account. However, Turner is not coercing her employees to attend a public prayer. Therefore, I do not believe that a reasonable observer would consider this to be a religious establishment. She is expressing her free exercise and free speech by sending out these emails as a private citizen. While her actions may not be appropriate, they do not constitute a violation of the establishment clause.

Christy said...

It might not have been the most responsible use of her official email account, but there is not a violation of the Establishment Clause in this example. As a US citizen, she was exercising her right to free speech, regardless of her occupation. She was asking for prayer, not forcing anyone into anything. If the people felt coerced to pray by their boss, they are mature adults who can choose not to.

BryceS said...

I agree with Chris in regards to the fact that there was no violation of the victims constitutional rights. There may be a case for harassment, but there is no infringement on anyone civil rights or rights to religious freedom. The issue pertaining to use of work email is far more relevant and controversial, especially considering the nature of the situation. Reading the comments, I think Pamela said it correctly. She was definitely representing herself as a principle rather than a private citizen, which may not be pushing some limits.

Marissa V said...

In the future, the principal should solely use her personal email. By using her school email, there could possibly be some confusion regarding if she is in work mode or not. She has every right to send out the emails as it is protected under the free speech amendment but should be more cautious in the future and keep personal views with her personal email address.

Justin E said...

As mentioned by others and discussed in class, I too believe that the principal was in the wrong using her work email to send these messages. By using her work email she was attaching her authority as "principal" to these messages. This sends a bad message to teachers who do not believe in the same beliefs. They may feel as though they will be penalized for not attending public prayer. In my mind the principal was in the wrong, however this should not be looked at as an establishment of religion!

OPRES said...

ok guys and gals-I live in this area and it's a mess. The agenda has been set. The organization Separation of Church and State; along with CAIR, are bent on squashing any type of CHRISTIAN expression. I personally witnessed Clay representative of these organizations PROMOTE Islamic ideology, WICCA ideology and "Progressive" Ideals. These organizations are nationwide and approach is pretty much the same. (they are connected as well). The attack is on small school districts with limited funds because they cannot fight. When the districts settle, these organizations get stronger and more profitable. They are trying to build an alliance. Most have absolutely NO idea what this really means. it IS happening in small towns all over the place.

The principal shouldn't have used her work email and the only consequence should have been an internal reprimand.
What's next? How about if a student who receives a PELL Grant isn't allowed to attend church or carry a bible on college campus? How about if a woman ends up a single mother on welfare, she is restricted from religious studies? Why not restrict all folks on Social Security from being allowed to promote any type of Christian beliefs? This sounds crazy to some right now but you wait—it WILL happen if we continue allow the bullying.
Our society is ignorant of our own rights There IS NO LANGUAGE in the United States Constitution that states separation of church and state. It clearly states no state ESTABLISHMENT. This means that a governmental body, that has authority to make laws is allowed to establish a requirement. The other part of the first amendment also states that the government cannot interfere with the free exercise of. The ONLY broken rule here is misuse of work property--worthy of a written letter in her file-absolutely NOTHING MORE. Capriola is trying to bully the whole district through his actions. The discussion should be broad.
BTW: This principal didn’t think too much about sending these emails because she's known throughout most of the community and has been around for many many years. She viewed this community as her family. I consider Capriola's actions pathetic. He could have handled it MUCH more ethically and he should be fired for causing a hostile environment. THAT is just as serious as misuse of property. Unfortunately, Capriola's actions will do extensive damage for generations to come. This community is divided. The school board is compromising it’s values to bow down to this man and I consider this a stab in the back as a citizen who helped put those spineless wonders in those positions. By caving, we are telling everyone we are not willing to fight for our rights to expression; and that public employees have absolutely NO RIGHTS. Most importantly, we are telling our children that faith; especially the expression of it, is bad. Mr. Parrott with Clay United Separation of Church and State is one evil dude –and you can take THAT to the bank.