Boring Lessons: Defining the Limits of a Teacher’s First Amendment Right to Speak Through the Curriculum

Margaret Boring’s classes were anything but boring. She taught Advanced Acting at Owen High School in rural Buncombe County, North Carolina, and her classes’ performances regularly won regional and state awards. In the fall of 1991, Ms. Boring chose a controversial play, Independence by Lee Blessing, for her students to perform. Independence “powerfully depicts the dynamics within a dysfunctional, single-parent family – a divorced mother and three daughters; one a lesbian, another pregnant with an illegitimate child.” Prior to the first performance at the school, Ms. Boring informed the principal of the play’s title but not its content. After the presentation of the play, she was transferred to a middle school. Viewing her transfer as a demotion, she filed suit, claiming that the First Amendment protected her decision to teach controversial material. A federal trial court dismissed her complaint for failure to state a claim. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit reversed the trial court, finding that Ms. Boring’s choice of the play was speech protected by the First Amendment. Later, a sharply divided Fourth Circuit, sitting en banc, split 7-6 to reverse the panel decision, finding that curricular speech garners no First Amendment protection.