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San Diego Unified School District v. Commission on Professional Competence: A California Teacher is Fired for Soliciting Sex on Craigslist


by Richard Fossey & Todd A. DeMitchell - November 07, 2011

Can a teacher be fired for soliciting sex on craigslist? A California court says yes.

No state court has done more to protect the private lives of teachers from snooping school boards than the California Supreme Court. In Morrison v. State Board of Education (1969), the court considered the appeal of Marc Morrison, a California teacher whose teaching license was revoked after he told his superintendent that he had engaged in a brief, consensual same-sex affair with another teacher. The state board of education concluded that the affair constituted an act of immoral and unprofessional conduct under California law and stripped Morrison of his livelihood.


On appeal, the California Supreme Court reversed the state board’s decision. The Board of Education could not abstractly characterize Morrison’s conduct as immoral, unprofessional, or involving moral turpitude, the court ruled, “unless that conduct indicates that [Morrison] is unfit to teach” (p. 386). The California court then went on to list a number of factors that must be considered before a teacher’s teaching license can be revoked based on the teacher’s off-duty activities. “In determining whether the teacher’s conduct indicates unfitness to teach,” the court wrote:


[T]he board may consider such matters as the likelihood that the conduct may have adversely affected students or fellow teachers, the degree of such adversity anticipated, the proximity or remoteness in time of the conduct, the type of teaching certificate held by the party involved, the extenuating or aggravating circumstances, if any, surrounding the conduct, the praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of the motives resulting from the conduct, the likelihood of the recurrence of the questioned conduct, and the extent to which disciplinary action may inflict an adverse impact or chilling effect upon the constitutional rights of the teacher involved or other teachers. (p. 386)


Thus, the California Supreme Court ruled, the State Board of Education could not revoke Mr. Morrison’s teaching license without considering the factors that the court listed. The court concluded its opinion with this ringing affirmation: “The power of the state to regulate professions and conditions of government employment must not arbitrarily impair the right of the individual to live his private life, apart from his job, as he deems fit” (p. 394).


Other state courts have followed the California Supreme Court’s reasoning in the Morrison case, and it is now generally understood that a teacher’s private life is none of the state’s business unless that private life demonstrates that the teacher is unfit to teach.


The Lampedusa Case: A California Teacher Who Solicits Sex on Craigslist Is Fired


Morrison’s guidance is easy to apply in cases involving a teacher’s purely private conduct. But some private conduct can become publicly known and achieve such a level of notoriety that the teacher’s classroom effectiveness can be legitimately called into question. In such instances, may a school district fire a teacher for off-duty behavior?


A California appellate court considered this question recently in the case of San Diego Unified School District v. Commission on Professional Competence (2011), involving Frank Lampedusa, dean of students at a San Diego middle school. In the summer of 2008, Dean Lampedusa posted an ad on Craigslist’s “men seeking men” Web page, in which Lampedusa solicited sex (p. 323).


Titled “Horned up all weekend and need release,” Lampedusa’s ad contained this text: “In shape guy, masc, attractive, 32 waist, swimmer’s build, horny as f-ck. Looking to suck and swallow masc guys, also looking to get f-cked . . . . White, black, Hispanic, European, all good. Not fats, fems, queens, asians. NO BELLIES. Have pics when you email” (p. 323).


Although Lampedusa’s ad did not list his name or profession, it did contain four photographs of Lampedusa: “the first of his face, torso, and abdomen, the second of his anus, the third of his genitalia, and the fourth of his face and upper torso” (p. 323). Someone viewed Lampedusa’s Craigslist ad and made an anonymous call to the local police. A police detective called San Diego ISD area superintendent Rick Cansdale and informed him of the ad. Cansdale called Lampedusa at school and suggested that he remove the posting. Lampedusa immediately left school, went home, and removed the ad from Craigslist.


About three weeks later, SDUSD put Lampedusa on administrative leave, and a few months later the school district fired him. The school district charged him with immoral conduct and “evident unfitness for service” (pp. 323-324).


Lampedusa contested the dismissal charges before a three-person panel of the Commission on Professional Competence, which ruled in Lampedusa’s favor. According to the Commission, Lampedusa’s conduct was vulgar and inappropriate and demonstrated a lapse in good judgment. Nevertheless, in the Commission’s opinion, there was no “nexus” between Lampedusa’s behavior and his employment at SDUSD. Apparently, no teacher or student had viewed the Craigslist ad or learned of the incident. Therefore, there was no notoriety connected with Lampedusa’s behavior. In the Commission’s view, Lampedusa’s motivation in placing the Craigslist ad--to meet someone for a sexual relationship--was “neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy” under the California Supreme Court’s Morrison standard, and Lampedusa was unlikely to engage in similar conduct again. Accordingly, the Commission ordered Lampedusa reinstated to his job.


SDUSD, unhappy with this outcome, challenged the Commission’s decision in court, arguing that the Commission had abused its discretion by reinstating Lampedusa. The trial judge sided with the Commission, however, and refused to overturn the Commission’s decision.


SDUSD then appealed to the California Court of Appeals, where it found a more sympathetic court. The court analyzed Lampedusa’s conduct against all the factors that the California Supreme Court had articulated in the Morrison case and concluded that the Commission on Professional Competence had erred when it found no cause for firing Lampedusa.


In particular, the California appellate court took exception to the Commission’s conclusion that Lampedusa’s conduct was neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy. “While Lampedusa’s conduct may not have been blameworthy in the sense he was seeking a date,” the court observed, “it was extremely blameworthy in the pornographic and obscene manner that he did so” (p. 328).


Moreover, the appellate court was disturbed by Lampedusa’s testimony at the Commission hearing. Lampedusa testified that he did not believe that his conduct was immoral or that the Craigslist incident would have any adverse impact on his ability to teach. Lampedusa argued that the Craigslist site was for adults only and that it was the responsibility of parents to make sure their children did not access the site and view the ad. In the court’s view, Lampedusa’s conduct in posting the ad, “together with Lampedusa’s failure to accept responsibility or recognize the seriousness of his misconduct given his position as a teacher and role model, demonstrates evident unfitness to teach” (p. 329).


In short, the California appellate court concluded, “The public posting on a Web site of pornographic photos and obscene text constitute immoral conduct in that it evidences ‘indecency’ and ‘moral indifference’” (p. 329). The appellate court instructed the lower court to order the Commission to render a decision finding that Lampedusa’s conduct constituted grounds for dismissal based on “evident unfitness to teach” and “immoral conduct” (p. 329).


Conclusion


What is the significance of the Lampedusa case? First, the court did not depart from the California Supreme Court’s guidance in Morrison. Teachers have the right to live their private lives as they choose so long as their private conduct does not indicate an unfitness to teach. But posting pornographic photos on Craigslist, accompanied by obscene text, is a public act that shows a substantial lack of professional judgment and a disregard for a teacher’s status as a role model for students. The Lampedusa opinion--upholding the dismissal of Lampedusa for immoral conduct--is a wise decision. In the years to come, it seems likely that other courts will adopt the Lampedusa decision’s reasoning and uphold school districts that discipline teachers for posting inappropriate photos and text on the Web, at least when a district can show that such postings demonstrate a teacher’s unfitness to teach.


References


Morrison v. State Board of Education, 461 P.2d 375 (Cal. 1969).


San Diego Unified School District v. Commission on Professional Competence, 124 Cal. Rptr. 3d 320 (Cal. Ct. App. 2011).  




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 07, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16587, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 5:06:07 PM

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About the Author
  • Richard Fossey
    University of North Texas
    E-mail Author
    RICHARD FOSSEY is Professor and Mike Moses Endowed Chair in Educational Administration at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. He was recently appointed Editor of the Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership.
  • Todd DeMitchell
    University of New Hampshire
    E-mail Author
    TODD A. DEMITCHELL is a Kimball Fellow and professor in the Department of Education and Justice Studies Program at the University of New Hampshire. His research interests are the legal mechanisms that impact schools and colleges, such as education law, collective bargaining, and policy analysis. Recent publications include Negligence: What Principals Need to Know to Avoid Liability (Roman & Littlefield Education, 2006); “Academic Freedom and the Public School Teacher: An Exploratory Study of Perception, Policy, and the Law” in Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal (with Vincent Connelly); and “Teacher Perceptions of Professionalism and Unionism: A Tangled Relationship” in Education Law Reporter (with Casey Cobb).
 
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