Many of you have been asking me about the fate of Ashley Payne, the Barrow County high school teacher who lost her job over her Facebook page and whose experience sparked a national debate about Internet privacy, anonymous e-mails and teacher rights.
The legal case is proceeding. Ashley Payne’s lawyer just deposed the principal and assistant principal. She is fighting to get her job back.
I asked attorney Richard Storrs if Barrow ever traced the source of the incriminating e-mail that led to Payne being called in by her principal in August and told to consider resigning rather than face losing her teaching license. Under that pressure, the 23-year-old UGA honors graduate says she felt she had no recourse but to resign – a mistake according to veteran teachers.
Here is what Storrs told me this week:
“We took depositions of the principal and assistant principal last week. The principal basically admitted to the thrust of our case–that he suggested resignation to Ashley, that he failed to advise her fully on what was happening, and that they had no idea where the email came from, or whether or not it was from an actual parent.”
This confirms my original conviction that the anonymous e-mailer who protested Payne’s Facebook photos of drinking wine and beer in Europe and her status update of playing “bitch bingo” was an adult friend or fellow teacher with a grudge against her rather than an outraged parent with a legitimate beef.
The system acted on the anonymous e-mail – and acted within two hours of reading it. The Facebook photos were standard tourist shots in European beer gardens and cafes and “bitch bingo” is a popular game played at an Atlanta bar/restaurant. There was nothing offensive about either, and there was no other evidence that Payne had permitted students to view her Facebook page.
To read background on this bizarre case, please see my earlier blogs by going to the Facebook listing in the categories index on right side of the page.
This entire episode hinges on the oddly written and unsigned e-mail, which charged that Payne was allowing students access to her Facebook page. Payne said that was impossible since she had tight privacy settings and had never “friended” a student.
When I obtained a copy of the outraged e-mail that purported to be from a parent, I immediately felt that it was a fraud and that another teacher had written it. (I explain why in earlier blogs, but it was partly the stilted language and weird references. The e-mail is in the blogs.)
In my interviews with Barrow, I was stunned to find out that the system never confirmed that the e-mail – which came from a dummy e-mail address – was really from a parent. Barrow had no idea who sent it when I interviewed the communications director, yet district officials were willing to accept its allegations as fact.
When I reported that information in the AJC, it set off a national firestorm of protest, as well it should. I think teachers are entitled to have Facebook pages, and I think school systems — or any employers — are on shaky grounds responding this quickly and aggressively to an anonymous e-mail without a shred of confirming evidence. I think Payne became a national story because so many people have Facebook pages, especially younger workers, and they saw great injustice in this case. (A small number of folks don’t agree, saying teachers should not post photos of themselves ever with alcohol and there is no real privacy on Facebook.)
The school district’s failure to document that the e-mail was authentic didn’t make any sense to me because Barrow initially told me that Payne’s main offense was sharing her Facebook page with a student. Yet, they never confirmed that a student ever saw the page, so why did they act so quickly on this matter?
I also talked to the head of the Professional Standards Commission, the state’s governing body over teacher conduct. He told me his office would not have responded to an anonymous e-mail, even though Payne’s boss told her that it was likely the PSC would strip her of her teaching license if the complaint came before it. The principal then suggested to Payne that resignation was a safer option for her, according to a statement provided to me by Barrow County schools.
I hope to see a copy of the recent depositions and will report back to you. I will also seek updated comment from Barrow County on this case and share that with you. I know the county is reeling from all the attention – which, unfortunately, included death threats to the principal. Police are investigating the threats, which cross a line and are insane.
But I think the county brought this unwanted and unsavory attention on itself by its actions in this case. I hope it is resolved soon for everyone’s sake, but particularly Payne who is without a job in a profession she loves and hopes to work in for many years to come.