Facts: A School District Fires a Teacher for Posting an Obscene Craigslist Ad

          Frank Lampedusa, a tenured teacher, was a middle-school literacy teacher before being promoted to Dean of Students. His principal characterized Lampedusa as doing a “good job” and acting “professional.” Id. at 323. On June 22, 2008, a school district police dispatcher received an anonymous tip from a parent that Lampedusa had a listing on a craigslist section labeled “men seeking men” titled “Horned up all weekend and need release.” Id. The section had a disclaimer restricting entry to persons 18 years old or older and a notice warning viewers that the site contained adult content. In order to enter the site the viewer had to click the disclaimer. The ad did not contain Lampedusa’s name or occupation; but it did display four pictures of Lampedusa.  Two pictures were of Lampedusa’s face and upper torso, the third was of his anus, and the fourth was of his genitalia. Id. The ad stated:

In shape guy, masc., attractive, 32 waist, swimmer’s build. Horny as f---.
Looking to suck and swallow masc. guys also looking to get f---. Uncut
and huge shooters jump to the head of the line. Give my [sic] your loads so I
can shoot mine. White, black [sic], Hispanic, European, all good. No fats, fems,
queens, asians [sic]. NO BELLIES. Have pics when you email.
Id. (emphasis in original).

The police alerted San Diego Unified School District about the ad; and Rich Cansdale, an Area Superintendent, met with Lampedusa at Lampedusa’s school. Cansdale suggested that Lampedusa should remove the listing, and Lampedusa agreed.  Lampedusa immediately left school to remove the listing and all known links to it. The ad had been up two days before it was discovered by school authorities. Lampedusa later testified that he had previously posted five or six ads on the internet soliciting sex. Id. at 324.

          On July 17, 2008, Lampedusa was placed on paid administrative leave. On November 10, 2008, he was served with a notice of suspension and with dismissal charges for evident unfitness for service and immoral conduct under the California Education Code. Id. at 323-4.

 

An Administrative Body Reinstates Lampedusa and a Trial Court Affirms

          Lampedusa requested a hearing before a three-member panel of the Commission on Professional Competence to contest the dismissal charges. He asserted that he never intended for students to view the Web site and that he did not use school time, equipment, or resources to develop or post the listing. Id. at 324. Furthermore, he stated that it was the responsibility of parents and students to refrain from accessing the Craigslist ad; he stated, “I would assume parents are taking their responsibilities to monitor children and what they’re doing on the Internet.” Id.

          Lampedusa also testified before the Panel that while he understood that “educators at his school would be uncomfortable with what he did,” he did not believe that he acted in an immoral manner. Id. He stated that he would continue to place ads soliciting sex but that he would be circumspect about the choice of pictures and would censor the material more effectively.

          The principal told the Panel “she had lost confidence in Lampedusa and questioned his ability to serve as a role model for students as either the dean of students or as a teacher.” Id. She had viewed the ad prior to her testimony.

          The Commission found Lampedusa’s conduct in placing the ad to be “vulgar and inappropriate” and demonstrated “a serious lapse of judgment.” Id. However, in spite of strongly condemning Lampedusa’s behavior, the Commission concluded that the school district had failed to establish a nexus between Lampedusa’s craigslist ad and his employment.  Id. In other words, the school district had not shown that his conduct resulted in harm to the school nor had it affected his ability to teach. Specifically, the Commission noted that “had any student, parent, or teacher viewed respondent’s ad, it surely would have washed over into his professional life and interfered with his ability to serve as a role model at school. However that simply never happened in this case.” Id. However, the panel stated that there was no adverse notoriety associated with the craigslist incident and thus there was no showing that Lampedusa’s conduct had harmed the school or diminished his ability to effectively fulfill his professional duties.

          The District filed a writ of mandate challenging the Commission’s decision as lacking the weight of evidence necessary to support its dismissal of the charges. The trial court adopted the Commission’s findings and conclusions. It held that the weight of evidence supported the Commission’s conclusion. The court denied the writ of mandate holding that “’Lampedusa’s conduct did not affect students or teachers, and by all accounts he was a competent teacher and Dean of Students.’” Id. at 325.

 

A California Appellate Court Reverses

          On appeal, a California appellate court relied on the California Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Morrison v. State Board of Education, 461 P.2d 375 (Cal. 1969) to decide whether the craigslist incident provided proper grounds for dismissing Lampedusa from his teaching position.  Morrison listed seven criteria for determining when a teacher’s off-duty conduct constitutes grounds for dismissal based on a finding of evident unfitness to teach: (1) likelihood that the conduct will have an adverse affect on students or teachers; (2) proximity or remoteness in time of the conduct; (3) type of teaching certificate that the teacher holds; (4) extenuating or aggravating circumstances surrounding the incident; (5) praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of the teacher’s motives for his conduct: (6) likelihood  that the conduct will recur; and (7) whether disciplinary action might have a chilling effect on the constitutional rights of teachers.

Applying these seven criteria to the craigslist incident, the California appellate court concluded that the evidence clearly showed that the San Diego School District had adequate grounds for firing Lampedusa.  In the appellate court’s view, there was a clear nexus between Lampedusa’s conduct and his fitness to teach. In publicly posting pictures of his anus and genitals on craigslist, accompanied with sexually explicit text, Lampedusa had shown “a serious lapse in good judgment,” which argued for a finding that he had demonstrated an evident unfitness to teach.” Id. at 329. The court quickly dispatched the issue of whether Lampedusa’s acts met the criteria for immorality. The court concluded that the “pornographic photos and obscene text constitute immoral conduct in that it evidences ‘indecency’ and ‘moral indifference.’” Id..

In short, the appellate court ruled that there “was no substantial evidence to support the Commission’s decision [to reinstate Lampedusa] as the evidence showed an evident unfitness to serve as a teacher, which constituted adequate grounds for termination.” Id. at 326.  The appellate court reversed the trial court and directed it to issue a writ of mandate instructing the Commission to set aside its decision and to find that Lampedusa’s conduct constituted grounds for dismissal for evident unfitness to teach and for immorality.

 

Discussion

San Diego Unified School District v. Commission on Professional Competence is an important case because it ruled that a teacher may be properly dismissed for posting a sexually explicit communication on a social networking web site, regardless of whether the teacher’s conduct achieved a level of notoriety among students or other teachers. Although the case was decided under California law, it will undoubtedly be influential as courts in other states consider whether a teacher’s inappropriate communications on such social media websites as craigslist, Facebook, and Myspace constitute grounds for firing a teacher. Clearly, what teachers do away from school, even in cyberspace, still matters.