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Letterhead Policy Not Airtight in Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

Last month, an Eighth Circuit federal appeals panel reinstated a lawsuit that alleged an athletic director was wrongfully terminated after using district letterhead to write a letter supporting a reduced sentence for his nephew in a child pornography case.

The district received the letter from a relative of the athletic director who was evidently upset after his nephew was granted an early release. The district met with the athletic director and expressed concerns about the use of district letterhead to advocate for early release of an individual convicted of a child pornography offense.  Ultimately, the superintendent recommended termination.

After his termination, the athletic director filed suit against the school district and superintendent, alleging wrongful termination in retaliation for speech protected by the First Amendment.

The district’s defense of the termination was based in large measure on the fact that the athletic director used letterhead with the district’s name and logo on it and included the job title and address. Dooming this argument, the court found that the District does not issue its employees official letterhead, and it was common practice for individuals to produce their own letterhead using the school logo and their titles without incurring adverse consequences.

The key takeaway is that employers have a legitimate interest in the control of their letterhead, but failure to regulate the use of company letterhead for personal matters may weaken an employer’s ability to regulate controversial speech.

© 2020 BARNES & THORNBURG LLPNational Law Review, Volume VIII, Number 235

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About this Author

Taylor Hunter, Barnes Thornburg Law Firm, Indianapolis, Labor and Employment Attorney
Staff Attorney

Taylor L. Hunter is a staff attorney and member of the Labor and Employment Law Department in Barnes & Thornburg’s Indianapolis office. Ms. Hunter focuses her practice in the area of education law with an emphasis on employment and student disability matters.

Before joining Barnes & Thornburg as a staff attorney, Ms. Hunter gained experience as an associate with an Indianapolis-based law firm where she assisted in the areas of family law, traffic issues, small claims, criminal law and litigation.

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