A group of students asked Jacqueline Fowler, a tenured teacher with 14 years of experience in the Lincoln County (Kentucky) schools, to show the movie Pink Floyd - The Wall on 31 May 1984, a non- instructional day set aside for completing grade reports. Fowler had never seen the movie, so she asked the students whether it was appropriate for viewing at school. Charles Bailey, age 15, who had seen the movie several times, indicated that the movie had "one bad place in it."
When Fowler rented the R-rated movie at a video store, the clerk told her that, during a song called "Young Lust" there was some nudity and warned her that she might wish to skip that portion. Fowler did not preview the movie before it was shown to her students, who were in grades 9 through 11 and ranged in age from 14 through 17. She instructed Bailey to edit out any parts that were unsuitable for viewing at school by attempting to cover the 25-inch screen with an 8 1/2 by 11 file folder.
Although there is some dispute as to how explicit certain parts of the movie are, it does contain scenes involving a violent rape, nudity, a suggestion of oral sex, and a naked woman and a naked man in bed engaging in foreplay and intercourse. One controversial segment involves animated flowers that are transformed into the shape of male and female sex organs, which then engage in an act of intercourse. Other scenes depict a bloody battlefield, police brutality, a character cutting his chest with a razor, and children being fed into a giant sausage machine. The audio portion of the movie contains enough offensive language to mandate an automatic R rating under the Motion Picture Industry Standards.
There is conflicting evidence about how effective Bailey was in editing the movie. During the morning session, Fowler left the room on several occasions, and the testimony suggested that Bailey did not attempt to block out much of this showing. During the afternoon session, Assistant Principal Michael Candler walked in, and Fowler told Bailey to open the file folder while editing the movie. After the afternoon showing, Principal Jack Portwood asked Fowler to give him the videotape. The superintendent and members of the Lincoln County Board of Education then viewed the film, and proceedings were initiated to terminate Fowler's contract.
As a tenured teacher, Fowler was entitled to a hearing, which was held on 10 July 1984. She testified that she believed that Pink Floyd - The Wall had significant educational value because it portrayed the dangers of repressive educational systems and of alienation between people. She stated that she would show an edited version of the movie again if given the opportunity to explain it. She also testified that she did not discuss the movie with her students on May 31 because she did not have enough time. After viewing the movie once in its entirety and once approximately as it was edited by Bailey, the school board voted unanimously to terminate Fowler's employment for insubordination and conduct unbecoming a teacher.
Fowler sued the Board in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. During the trial, held without a jury, school officials testified that they objected to the movie because it promoted values that were described as immoral, antieducation, antifamily, antijudiciary, and antipolice. They also testified that they found the movie objectionable because of its sexual content, vulgar language, and violence.
District Judge Scott Reed found that Fowler was discharged for exercising her constitutionally protected rights under the First Amendment. He awarded Fowler reinstatement, back pay with interest, reimbursement of funds necessary for her full reinstatement within the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System, damages for emotional distress and professional defamation, compensatory damages for costs incurred in seeking new employment, court costs, and attorneys' fees.
The school board appealed this decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. On 1 June 1987 the Sixth Circuit voted 2-1 to reverse Judge Reed's decision. Judge H. Ted Milburn, writing for the majority, noted that freedom of speech is an important value in the classroom, but he concluded that "Fowler's conduct in having the movie shown under the circumstances present here did not constitute expression protected by the First Amendment."
Judge Milburn cited several reasons for this conclusion. First, Fowler did not see the movie before she allowed it to be shown to her class on the morning of 31 May 1984. Second, that day had been set aside for noninstructional purposes. Third, Fowler agreed to allow the movie to be shown, at the students' request, because May 31 was "their type of day." Fourth, Fowler never at any time on the day of the showing attempted to explain any message that the students might derive from viewing the movie. Judge Milburn wrote:
"Under circumstances such as these, I cannot conclude that Fowler possessed an intent to convey a particularized message to her students. The mere fact that at some point she may have developed an approval of the content of the movie is not, standing alone, a sufficient basis for the conclusion that her conduct in having the movie shown was a form of expression entitled to protection under the First Amendment."
In other words, Judge Milburn emphasized that the First Amendment protects conduct only when it is expressive or communicative in nature. Because of the various factors involved in this case, Judge Milburn was able to discount Fowler's testimony that she believed that the movie conveyed some important themes. He found that, at the time, Fowler did not intend and certainly did not accomplish, through the showing of Pink Floyd - The Wall, any act of communication with her students. Fowler's claim that the movie had an important message was essentially an after-the-fact attempt to embellish her unprofessional conduct with constitutional dimensions. For these reasons, Judge Milburn not only reversed the decision of the district court but took the unusual step of dismissing Fowler's case.
Judge John Peck agreed with this result by concluding that, while the school board in this case may have been motivated by unconstitutional disagreement with the message of the movie, the evidence is strong enough to demonstrate that the board would have terminated Fowler even in the absence of its objections to the movie's content. Judge Peck wrote:
"[W]hile the School Board clearly expressed displeasure with the anti- establishment focus of the film, the Board also found the method of the film to be highly inappropriate for its students. That method was to use sexual innuendo and sexually explicit material, some profane language, violence, and vulgar images, to tell the story of the film. The School Board was also motivated by the poor judgment used by the teacher in not previewing an 'R-rated' film and in the cavalier manner in which she allowed the film to be shown and 'edited' by a student."
Judge Gilbert Merritt dissented by noting that the evidence made it
"obvious" that Fowler was discharged because of the content of the movie.
Merely because the content of the movie may have been expressed in vulgar
terms is not enough, in Judge Merritt's opinion, to take the movie outside
the protection of the First Amendment.