Contact: Gloria Allred
We are here today to dispel misconceptions and set the record straight by explaining why Melissa Petro, age 31, a tenured teacher in the New York City school system decided to resign from the teaching job that she loved.
Melissa was an exemplary art and creative writing teacher at P.S.70 in the South Bronx from 2007 to 2010. However, that fact seemed to be unimportant to the New York City Department of Education (DOE) after it learned that Melissa had blogged on the Huffington Post about Craigslist’s decision to cease listing “adult services” and revealed in her blog that she had formerly been a call girl.
Shortly after her blog was published and public debate in the press ensued, the New York City Department of Education removed her from her classroom and began proceedings to try to terminate her.
I did not represent Melissa in those proceedings, but she had an outstanding attorney who did. 1 The most important argument made on Melissa’s behalf was that she was being punished for ideas that she expressed in her published writing.
As one federal court has stated, “It is well settled that public school teachers…do not check their First Amendment rights at the school house door when they enter public employment.” 2
In this case, Melissa was not being punished because she was once a stripper and a call girl. Even the DOE was not trying to punish her for that, because she was never either a stripper or call girl during the years that she was employed as a teacher by the DOE.
In addition, she was not punished by the DOE for discussing with her students the views which she expressed in the Huffington Post and her other writings, because she never discussed her essays, blog, articles or her past as a stripper or call girl with them.
For these reasons, Melissa’s articles should have had no bearing on and were not relevant to her fitness to do her job as a teacher. When she exercised her constitutional right of free speech in her writing it did not disrupt her class since she did not discuss her ideas there and Melissa contends it was not likely to cause disruption either.
Instead the DOE’s disciplinary action appeared to smack of retaliation against Melissa because she decided to assert her views outside of the classroom.
Pure retaliation for such speech is prohibited by the constitution and the courts because if retaliation for the exercise of free speech is allowed, it will have a chilling effect on such speech and inhibit it. That is why the courts have said, “Speech is often provocative and challenging…that is why freedom of speech, though not absolute, is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious, substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest.” 3
I believe that if Melissa had decided to go to trial she would have won. However, as much as she wanted to stand up for her constitutional rights, she decided instead to resign.
She will explain her reasons for her decisions. I will simply say that as a former public school teacher myself (for 6½ years in Philadelphia and Los Angeles) I believe that Melissa should never have been subjected to disciplinary action being instituted against her.
Melissa is a talented writer, a dedicated teacher and an effective advocate. I know that she wants to help young people avoid many of the hardships that she has been forced to suffer. I hope that she will be successful in her future efforts and help to inspire and empower others to stand up for their rights when government seeks to intimidate them.
Attorney at Law
representing Melissa Petro
February 10, 2011