MONTCLAIR, N.J (Reuters) - A first-grade teacher in New Jersey who described her students as "future criminals" on Facebook could be fired under a judge's decision issued this week after parents complained her remarks were offensive.
Administrative Law Judge Ellen Bass ruled that the Paterson teacher, Jennifer O'Brien, "demonstrated a complete lack of sensitivity to the world in which her students live" and recommended that she lose her tenured position.
Paterson is a poor, urban New Jersey community with a high rate of violent crime, and school officials interpreted O'Brien's comment as racially tinged, according to court documents.
The case marks the first time in New Jersey that a public school teacher has faced such public scrutiny for social media behavior, according to Allison Kobus, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.
It is also the first time a Paterson teacher has been disciplined for social media usage, school officials said.
O'Brien, a teacher in Paterson since 1998, has been on administrative leave since March when she wrote on Facebook: "I'm not a teacher - I'm a warden for future criminals!"
She testified that she wrote the comment after one of her first graders hit her and others stole money from her.
Although the comment was intended for her 333 Facebook friends, it was forwarded to other readers and within days school administrators and parents had seen it and were outraged.
Parents and community activists picketed in front of the school and called for her dismissal at school council meetings. In May, Paterson revised its school board policies to clarify how teachers should conduct themselves online.
Experts say cases such as O'Brien's are more about free speech than about social media such as Facebook, a public forum in which postings can be forwarded and ultimately read by anyone.
Disparaging comments that damage an employer, or in O'Brien's case a student, without advancing a political issue or cause are not as protected by the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, experts said.
"The case should be a stern warning that both students and teachers should be careful about the dangers of social media postings," said Paul Callan, a professor of media law at Seton Hall University.
More recently, in October, a high school teacher in Union, New Jersey, evoked the ire of the gay rights community after she posted what critics saw as several anti-gay comments on Facebook. The school district is investigating the case.
In another case, a Florida teacher was fired in July for criticizing New York's gay marriage law on Facebook. He was his district's 2010-2011 Teacher of the Year.
The New Jersey Education Commissioner has 45 days to accept, modify or reject the judge's ruling. O'Brien's lawyer could not be reached for comment, although she has told reporters she planned to appeal the decision.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Cynthia Johnston