Thorne v. Shelby County Board of Education - Liberty Justice Center

Thorne v. Shelby County Board of Education

Barton Thorne is the principal at Cordova High School in Cordova, Tennessee, a high school that serves many low-income and minority students. Principal Thorne has been with Shelby County Schools (SCS) for nearly two decades, dedicating his career to helping the families and students within his community.

His work has recently received widespread public attention, for the wrong reasons. His remarks encouraging his students to think critically and be aware of the dangers of censorship led to his being censored by SCS and put on administrative leave.

Why was Principal Thorne censored?

As part of his job as principal, Thorne delivers a “principal’s minute” with messages to his students as part of the daily announcement’s video. These messages inspire, educate, inform, and challenge his high school students with broad themes and life advice from their principal.

After the tragic and disturbing events of January 6, 2021, our country experienced a teachable moment around the importance of free speech and the dangers of cancel culture and deplatforming as social media moderators reacted to the content of various accounts. 

Principal Thorne used this teachable moment to talk to his students about the importance of free speech in a democratic society:

  • “…in democracies, we talk about the marketplace of ideas. Well, what happens when the marketplace of ideas becomes a forced monopoly? What happens when you do not have dissenting opinions, when you do not have an exchange on competing ideas—how do you know if your ideas can stand on their own if there is no marketplace of ideas?”
  • “…Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Apple, are so powerful, and they have unilaterally made a decision of what you can and cannot see on their platforms, that’s a major issue and I want you to understand that. I want you to understand the problem that’s going to face you and your generation if there is no longer a marketplace, a free exchange of ideas.”
  • “You may be in agreement with the people who are doing the filtering, but it’s just one moment away from somebody else being able to filter you. And so, if they can do that to a minority—or if they can do that to a powerful voice, it doesn’t have to be a minority—what will stop them one day from doing that to you?”
  • “So, anyway, think about that. Talk to your parents about it. If you trust your teacher talk to your teacher about it. Be aware, be in the loop as far as what’s going on. And not whether or not you agree or disagree with the people being filtered, but can this happen to you one day?”

His remarks took no political position, the focus was on helping his students think critically about the position being taken by tech companies like Facebook and Twitter. In fact, his talk not only followed Tennessee’s standards for teaching social studies to high school students, but it was also in line with the resources recommended by the school superintendent for teaching about January 6 and its aftermath.

For following Tennessee’s guidelines and embracing his duty as an educator to challenge his students, Principal Thorne was subjected to an internal disciplinary investigation and placed on leave for more than a month without any closure to his case.

In choosing to discipline Principal Thorne for his comments on free speech and the dangers of censorship, Shelby County Schools not only violated its own guidelines, it also violated Principal Thorne’s First Amendment right to free speech. 

Over the last month, attorneys from the Liberty Justice Center have reached out to school officials numerous times to rectify the situation with no success. Attorneys first sent a letter to the Superintendent, Director of Professional Standards and General Counsel, but there was no explanation for the continued leave or any movement to reinstate Principal Thorne. Now, Thorne’s attorneys have filed a federal lawsuit against the district for violating his First Amendment and contractual rights for placing him on administrative leave for discussing current events and free speech with students.

Background

Attorneys from the Liberty Justice Center filed a complaint in Thorne v. Shelby County Board of Education on Feb. 24, 2021, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.

Timeline

01/11/2021

Principal Thorne delivers weekly principal’s message about the importance of free speech in a democratic society, particularly in the modern era of social media.

01/11/2021

Following the message, one or several unknown employees, parents or students filed a complaint against Principal Thorne.

01/12/2021

Principal Thorne placed on administrative leave by Shelby County Schools.

01/13/2021

SCS board member and administrators communicate with the media regarding Principal Thorne’s leave. Thorne is not permitted to speak to the media.

01/25/2021

Principal Thorne secures representation from the Liberty Justice Center. Liberty Justice Center attorneys contact SCS leadership and counsel to begin the process of reinstating Principal Thorne.

02/01/2021

SCS Office of Professional Services contact Principal Thorne saying they hope to conclude their investigation “in the next few days.”

02/03/2021

SCS General Counsel response to LJC letter stating that the administrative leave is "is not punitive and is not intended to represent an adverse action." However, no action is taken to promptly resolve any investigation.

02/12/2021

LJC attorneys again attempt to open settlement talks with SCS, but receive no response.

02/23/2021

Principal Thorne files federal lawsuit for First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment and contractual violations against Shelby County Board of Education and Superintendent Dr. Joris M. Ray in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.

Briefs

Demand Letter to Shelby County Schools 01/25/2021

Complaint 02/25/2021

Transcript of Principal Thorne's Message 02/25/2021

Press Release 02/25/2021

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