Watts v. Seward School Board

PETITIONER: James A. Watts, et al.
RESPONDENT: Seward School Board, et al.
LOCATION: Seward High School

DOCKET NO.: 325
DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1967-1969)
LOWER COURT: Alaska Supreme Court

CITATION: 391 US 592 (1968)
ARGUED: Mar 26, 1968
DECIDED: Jun 03, 1968
GRANTED: Oct 09, 1967

ADVOCATES:
George N. Hayes - for the respondent
George Kaufmann - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

James A. Watts, a schoolteacher in Alaska, held private conversations with other teachers to obtain their support to remove the superintendent from his position. His further language included words to the effect of ‘we are unable to get rid of the superintendent, so let’s get rid of the school board.’ The Seward School Board considered Watts' conduct to be “immoral,” defined as “conduct of the person tending to bring the individual concerned or the teaching profession into public disgrace or disrespect” under the relevant Alaska statute, so Watts was dismissed from his teaching job.

Watts' dismissal was upheld in both the Alaska Superior Court and the Alaska Supreme Court. The Alaska Supreme Court held that Watts' conduct “had a tendency to bring the teaching profession into public disgrace or disrespect.” Watts then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari and argued that his dismissal violated his First Amendment right because the school board was attempting to limit his freedom of political speech. He also argued a violation of his Fourteenth Amendment right because he should have the same equal protection for expression as any other private individual. After Watts filed his petition, Alaska amended the relevant state statute to reflect the rights of teachers to comment and criticize school administrators just as any private individual would have the right to do. Under the amended statute, Watts would not have been dismissed from his job.

Question

Should this case be vacated and remanded for further consideration in light of a change to the Alaska statute used in this case?

Media for Watts v. Seward School Board

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 26, 1968 in Watts v. Seward School Board

Earl Warren:

Number 325; James A. Watts Et Al., Petitioners, versus Seward School Board, Et Al.

Mr. Kaufmann?

George Kaufmann:

Mr. Chief Justice, May it please the Court.

This case is here on writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Alaska which have found the dismissal of petitioners as teachers in the public schools of Seward, Alaska.

Both petitioners were active and a group of teachers who opposed policy of the school board and of its superintendent Mr. Fibricious (ph).

In March 1960, the school board notified petitioners that their contracts would not be renewed and advised them of their rights under the Teacher Tenure Law to a hearing and of the charges against it.

After petitioners discharge was sustained within the state school system, they brought suit in the state courts to obtain judicial review of this determination.

After a lengthy litigation which included a summary reversal in this Court, the Supreme Court of Alaska on December 7, 1966 by 2:1 vote rendered the judgment now under review.

The Court held that both petitioners were properly discharged because in May 1959 they prepared and circulated to the public what was called an open letter to the Seward School Board.

This letter was signed by the Seward local of the American Federation of Teachers, of which petitioner Blue was President and petitioner Watts was Secretary.

The letter as reprinted is in appendix in the petitioner’s brief.

It starts up by saying that it was the union’s way of informing the school board and the public and I quote, “Of our stand in the current struggle for a good school.

We hold the incidents occurring during the last year have reached such proportions as to be definitely detrimental to morale of our teaching staff and the effectiveness of our educational system.”

The letter then recited some of these incidents, most of which cited around the school Superintendent.

Impairment of job security was the main theme of the letter.

The Superintendent had repeatedly threatened teachers with the loss of jobs and some teachers had already lost their jobs.

The letter objected also that the administration created tension and friction in the school, teachers had been subjected to undignified treatment, the Fire regulations had been disregarded and discussed some other matters of perhaps less important.

The union explained in its letter that the teachers had sought to resolve these problems privately, but that the school board had refused to meet with them.

The letter therefore requested an immediate public meeting with the school board at which the union would press for substantial improvements and administrative policies and set forth certain specific demands.

At the hearing on their dismissal both petitioners testified that they had prepared the open letter because all other avenues of recourse within the school system had been blocked.

They felt the need to inform and solicit the support of the electorate to which the school board and the teachers were ultimately responsible.

Now the discharge of petitioner Blue rests exclusively on his part in publishing this open letter to which I have referred.

But the Supreme Court of Alaska held against Watts for an additional reason.

The Court accepted a finding by the school board that Watts had met with two teachers Mr. and Mrs. (Inaudible) and now I quote the finding, “Ask them if they would go along with the group”, of which Watts was a representative whose purpose was to oust the Superintendent of Schools.

The statutory basis for the Court’s ruling that Watts was subject to discharge for this conversation, was that this was immorality within the meaning of the Alaskan tenure statute.

The Court construed immorality as including all conduct from the commission of the most highness felony down the scale of infamy to social misbehavior.

And to this definition the distribution of the open letter was also found to be immoral conduct.

But the Court ruled further that the distribution of the open letter also violated a school board regulation which described the procedure for processing grievances.

It is our position that it is authoritatively construed by the Supreme Court of Alaska, both the immorality provision of the statute and the regulation on which petitioner’s discharge is based were both hopelessly and unconstitutionally vague and that they were also unconstitutionally over broad.

We contend further that petitioner’s discharge violates the First Amendment.