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Marion County High School / Emily Borque

A Marion County school teacher who was suspended and reassigned after she posted comments on social media critical of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests after Floyd's death has filed a free-speech lawsuit against the school system.

Emily Jayne Bourque, a teacher in the county since 2008 who was formerly assigned to Marion County High School, claims the school system and officials violated her First Amendment right to free speech, and she is seeking rehire to an equivalent job, back pay and benefits, punitive damages and compensatory damages for emotional distress, career damage and physical harm.

"By posting as a private citizen on her Facebook page, Ms. Bourque was engaged in constitutionally protected speech," her lawsuit states. "Only narrowly defined categories of speech, like true threats or fighting words, are unprotected by the First Amendment."

The lawsuit was filed by Bourque's lawyer, Chattanooga attorney Donna Mikel, in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, naming as defendants the Marion County Board of Education, Director of Schools Mark Griffith and three other school system officials.

Griffith declined to comment Wednesday, referring questions to school system attorney Mark Raines, who did not return a reporter's message.

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Lawsuit teacher filed against Marion County Schools

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Floyd, an African American man, died May 25, 2020, under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, sparking weeks of nationwide and even worldwide protests for racial justice and against police brutality.

In the June 5, 2020, Facebook post at issue, Bourque wrote, "OK, yes. BLM, I agree that all lives matter and realize that BLM is not saying that they are the only ones that matter. I have seen racism even against whites, my family included, when in high black communities; it does make you feel unsafe. Although I have not personally witnessed racism against a black person due to the color of their skin, it doesn't mean it doesn't happen. My heart breaks for people of all colors that I have personally known if they have been victims of this. I have known amazing people of all colors.as well as thugs of all colors.

"I do NOT agree with all these protests and violent riots taking place at all.

"Here are some FACTS that I looked up myself about George Floyd, who is being used as a Martyr.

"Violent Criminal History including assault, robbery, rape, and more! He was gang affiliated as well.

"Autopsy revealed intoxicated, meth, psychoactive .[incomplete]

"The man obviously had a violent past and was known by the police officers. The man was intoxicated and on meth..do you know what that is capable of? People think they are Superman on that stuff and feel no pain. I haven't seen evidence or video of the entire situation in order to base my decision on if the man fought the officers or not, but autopsy suggests there was a struggle.

"I am not saying the officer didn't kill him, although, I do not think it was intentionally done by the officer. Maybe the officer was just an idiot who didn't really pay attention to what he was doing.Unless this is a black flag operation set forth by Democratsbut that's a whole other story with some compelling evidence..[emoji inserted]

"All of this to say..they need a better role model! Why do all of this over a known felon who commits violent crimes?"

According to the Hennepin County medical examiner, Floyd's autopsy showed fentanyl intoxication at the time of his death and recent methamphetamine use.

According to the fact-checking website Snopes, Floyd was charged and convicted of aggravated robbery in 2007 and had several drug and theft convictions in prior years, but his criminal record showed no mention of conviction on rape or assault charges.

In the suit, Bourque claims school officials made their decisions "in an apparent attempt to soothe public perception" and they "targeted and penalized" her for "nothing more than her legally protected speech."

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Staff file photo by Ben Benton / Marion County Director of Schools Mark Griffith

Online comments critical of Bourque also drew a post from Griffith stating "I have been made aware of this and I have been in contact with the school board attorney as well," according to the suit. "Marion County schools does not condone any type of racism. As with any issue that arises, there is always a thorough investigation."

Bourque's suit states that when she became aware that her post was generating negative comments, she deleted it.

Later the same day, Bourque's supervisor at Marion County High notified her she was being suspended over the post.

In a series of meetings over the next few days, Bourque was told former friends were calling for her firing, and a transfer was being considered to assign her to the county's alternative school, a move to which Bourque objected, according to the suit. Griffith also told Bourque the NAACP had contacted the school system seeking a meeting to "discuss Ms. Bourque's employment," the suit states.

Bourque contends she became physically ill following the meeting, experiencing "chest pains, an increase in symptoms from a pre-existing medical condition and insomnia."

Bourque later asked Griffith for an update on her status and "begged not to be moved from her school," the suit states. She contends she "did nothing to continue the negative discussion about her post, which was deleted the day it was made."

Bourque sought other remedies for her situation including switching from 11th grade literature to 10th grade literature since that material didn't discuss civil rights, "and because others on the internet had indicated she was not qualified to teach on such material," the suit states.

When the matter was raised during a July 2020 school board meeting, the suit states Raines said "following an investigation of the posts, the content 'did not rise to the level' as to violate any explicit policy of the district nor enter into the exceptions of Bourque's free speech. So, with regards to the social media posts, there was no further action to be taken."

Raines also said in the meeting that "there was not any overt racism" in the post and that Bourque "was expressing an opinion that did not violate the letter of the law nor policies of the district," the suit states.

"On August 18, 2020, Ms. Bourque received an email indicating that defendants had an executive session meeting after the regular board meeting and decided therein that no sanctions were warranted against Ms. Bourque, but that it would be in the best interests of all parties to reassign her to the alternative school effective August 24, 2020," the lawsuit states. "According to the email, 'this could help soothe a hostile environment for you, students, and colleagues.'"

The lawsuit states, "the placement at the alternative school is done with the intent to push the individual to resign."

According to court rules, the school system has 21 days to file an answer after service of the summons.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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Facebook post included in lawsuit.
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