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Kentucky teacher's free-speech lawsuit reinstated

By The Associated Press

11.12.01

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SHELBYVILLE, Ky. — A fifth-grade teacher who allowed actor Woody Harrelson to speak to her pupils about the merits of industrial hemp will have her day in court to argue that she was fired because of her choice of speakers.

In a vehement opinion issued Nov. 9, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that a lower court erred when it threw out Donna 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 not just in the schoolhouse, but also in the classroom.

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

Harrelson — an outspoken advocate of industrial hemp — made two trips to Cockrel’s Simpsonville Elementary School classroom in 1996 and 1997. Although both of Harrelson’s visits were approved by school leaders in advance, the backlash from parents was severe.

In July 1997, the school board fired Cockrel, citing 17 reasons for her termination, 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 Harrelson’s visits. However, not once before Harrelson’s visits did the school reprimand Cockrel.

Appeals Judge Eugene Siler Jr., writing in a concurring opinion issued with the ruling on Nov. 9, 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,” Siler wrote. “However, the school approved in advance the subject matter and the speaker. It must now pay the penalty for giving prior approval.”

Cockrel brought hemp into her curriculum as part of an agricultural class about alternative crops that could help save trees and the environment. The fiber is controversial because it can also be smoked to produce marijuana-like effects.

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

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

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