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Canceled by your own team

Feminist teacher fired for speaking against transgender ideology


Canceled by your own team
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In the bluest city in the bluest county in the whole state of Wisconsin, a group of women gathered for three days in April for a “weekend of radical feminist action, discussion, community, and solidarity.” They attended workshops, listened to panels, and even went on a group bike ride. On Saturday, they held a rally at the state capitol for feminist causes, which included an open mike for anyone to share thoughts, usually in short, unscripted remarks. When teacher Marissa Darlingh stepped to the microphone, she attacked the transgender ideology that is destroying the lives of her students.

Darlingh is a TERF—which now means a “transexclusionary radical feminist.” The TERF movement is a collection of liberal feminists who hold to the old belief that only women can be women, and that men should not be allowed to invade their sisterhood through gender transitions. They see feminism as a movement to achieve advancement for women against the patriarchy. They don’t want participants in the patriarchy infiltrating their collective through gender transitions. They are proud and enthusiastic about being women (including some who identify lesbian), and they don’t want that identity diluted by people who are not women but try to claim identity as women.

The woke mob showed up in force at the Capitol rally, calling the participants vicious names and proclaiming, “No TERFs on our turf.” For much of the left, transgender ideology is now a crucial component of their mission, a reflection of “the science” and best practices in health care. They know they are losing traction on this issue in the culture wars, and they do not take kindly to those they perceive as traitors within their ranks.

So now Darlingh’s short speech against transgenderism—made as a private citizen at a public rally at the capitol—has cost her her job. Darlingh was a school counselor for Milwaukee Public Schools, serving students in Wisconsin’s most struggling neighborhoods. As such, she was both an employee of MPS and a licensee of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. After her remarks at the rally, Darlingh received a letter from the state agency stating she was under investigation for “immoral conduct.” The letter said she could end the investigation by voluntarily surrendering her license.

Separately, MPS received nine emailed complaints from citizens, several of which were cut-and-paste in content. The complainants did not say that they were parents of students in the school district, or even that they are taxpayers residing in the district. Another teacher in her building then decided to adopt the attack on Darlingh, telling students to avoid her for counseling services because of her views.

Working for a public employer like a school district does not mean you trade away all of your First Amendment rights.

Though Darlingh sought formal mediation with her colleague to discuss the issue, the colleague declined, and the district responded with a letter to Darlingh announcing the opening of disciplinary proceedings. When the school year ended, she received another disciplinary letter, this time placing her on paid suspension. She also received a no-trespass letter barring her from all MPS buildings and properties.

Then, on Sept. 30, after the new school year began and the hiring cycle for other districts was completed, the district fired Darlingh, allegedly timing the punishment for maximum negative impact on her career. A lawsuit has now been filed on Darlingh’s behalf by the free-speech champions at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. They argue that the First Amendment protects her right to speak about important public issues outside of her workplace, even in (perhaps especially in) ways that challenge the reigning ideology of her education employer.

Darlingh would seem to have a strong case. The Supreme Court just last term ruled for Coach Kennedy, the praying high school football coach, vindicating his right to pray after games end. The Court said that the district treats the minutes between the end of the game and the start of the post-game meeting in the locker as personal, flexible time for its employees. Some may check their text messages on their phones, some may kiss their spouses in the stands—Coach Kennedy chose to pray. Though he was a district employee, he didn’t give up his First Amendment rights even if he was wearing a school-branded polo shirt while he prayed.

Shortly before that, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a high school student who said ugly things about her cheerleading coach in a private, off-campus social media message. The Court not only drew a strong line between on-campus and off-campus speech, but also reminded schools that they should model the marketplace of ideas where multiple competing views are aired.

Those same principles should shape any consideration of Darlingh’s case. Working for a public employer like a school district does not mean you trade away all of your First Amendment rights. But the fact that she has been fired and forced to sue in the first place is a reminder that the woke mob takes no prisoners, and cancel culture can come for anyone—and the leftists are after the liberals too.

Daniel R. Suhr

Daniel R. Suhr is an attorney who fights for freedom in courts across America. He has worked as a senior adviser for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as a law clerk for Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and at the national headquarters of the Federalist Society. He is a member of Christ Church Mequon. He is an Eagle Scout, and he loves spending time with his wife Anna and their two sons, Will and Graham, at their home near Milwaukee.

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