Sunday, November 11, 2001

Teacher may sue in hemp dispute

She was fired after Harrelson visited class

The Associated Press

        SHELBYVILLE, Ky. — Donna Cockrel, the fifth-grade teacher whose pupils actor Woody Harrelson taught about the merits of industrial hemp, will have her day in court to argue that she was fired from Simpsonville Elementary School because of her choice of speakers.

        In a vehement opinion issued Friday, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that a lower court had erred when it threw out Ms. Cockrel's lawsuit against the Shelby County Public School District before the case went to trial.

        The appellate court's three-member panel unanimously said schoolteachers retain the right to free speech.

        “Teachers don't lose their First Amendment rights because they're teachers,” said Ms. Cockrel's attorney, Eugene Mooney. “There's not a special rule for teachers — not even fifth-grade ones.”

        Mr. Harrelson — an outspoken advocate of industrial hemp — made two trips to Ms. Cockrel's classroom in 1996 and 1997. Although each of his visits were approved by school leaders in advance, the backlash from parents was severe.

        In July 1997, the school board fired Ms. Cockrel, citing 17 reasons, including insubordination and her disparagement of the school's “Just Think” curriculum.

        The appellate court said that some of the misconduct allegations by the school predated Mr. Harrelson's visits. However, not once before Mr. Harrelson's visits did the school reprimand Ms. Cockrel.

        Appeals Judge Eugene Siler Jr., writing in a concurring opinion issued with the ruling on Friday, took issue with the Shelby County school system.

        “On the face of it, it appears inappropriate for a fifth-grade class to have a celebrity speaker on a matter as complicated as legalizing industrial hemp,” Judge Siler wrote. “However, the school approved in advance the subject matter and the speaker. It must now pay the penalty for giving prior approval.”

        The school district's attorneys could not be reached for comment.

        Ms. Cockrel brought hemp into her curriculum as part of an agricultural class about alternative crops that could help save trees and the environment.

        Since her firing, she has moved to Detroit and is teaching at an elementary school.


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