By Chris Eversole
A federal appeals court has reversed a U.S. district courts’ ruling against fired Mustang Public Schools Athletic Director Chester “Chuck” Bailey Jr. and sent it back for a new trial.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, based in Denver, cited errors made by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma in Bailey’s suit against the school district.
The school district commented on the reversal in a text message.
“We are surprised by the recent turn of events after the district upheld the board of education’s decision,” the statement read.
“While we cannot offer more in the way of a comment regarding pending litigation, we do hope the matter comes to resolution quickly.”
The appeals court also granted immunity to former Superintendent Sean McDaniel, who now is the superintendent for Oklahoma City Schools, saying the law on him being part of the case was not established.
At issue was whether McDaniel violated Bailey’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression by firing him based on two letters of support that Bailey wrote advocating a reduced sentence for his nephew, Dustin Graham.
Bailey appealed the firing to the school board, which upheld McDaniel’s action.
Bailey used the school district’s logo on his letters, and he stated he was athletic director.
Graham had pled guilty on state charges stemming from video recordings he made of women in the bathroom of his apartment without their consent, the appeal court’s ruling noted.
He also pled guilty to a single count of manufacturing child pornography based on a video he recorded of a minor, the ruling said.
“Bailey asked the sentencing judge to consider Graham’s previous good character and his efforts at rehabilitation,” the appeals court noted.
McDaniel fired Bailey in 2016 after he received a package from an in-law of Bailey who “was angry about Graham’s early release and other family issues,” the ruling states.
The district court made a summary judgment – a ruling without a full trial – upholding the firing.
The district court concluded that Bailey’s letters were of a personal nature and were not protected by the right for individuals to express views on “a matter of public concern for the purposes of the First Amendment.”
“We disagree,” the appeals court wrote, and it referred to a case that serves as a precedent: “Matters of public concern are issues ‘of interest to the community, whether for social, political or personal reasons.’”
Later in the ruling, the appeals court cited another precedent that said that “the proper sentencing of convicted criminals is clearly a matter of public concern.”
The appeals court noted that Mustang teachers, including Bailey, routinely write letters of recommendation on district letterhead.
“Because the summary judgment record is unclear, we must conduct our analysis by assuming that Bailey’s termination was actually motivated by the letters’ content,” the ruling stated.
The appeals court addressed the school district’s discomfort with the position Bailey took in the letters.
“Bailey’s opinion regarding the correct outcome of Graham’s sentencing cannot render a sentencing any less a public matter, however misguided or distasteful the school district may have found that opinion,” the ruling said.