The Philadelphia School District's latest defeat in its wildly disproportionate war on a whistle-blower should be its last. But even after a judge ordered the perpetually broke school system to pay damages to the former administrator, a lawyer for the district vowed to continue its quixotic and costly defense of its attack on free speech and the press.
Federal Judge Juan R. Sánchez this week ordered the district and former officials to pay Francis X. Dougherty more than $300,000, an estimate of the earnings he lost after being fired for speaking to The Inquirer and authorities about an inappropriately awarded contract. Earlier, a federal jury found that the district, then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, and another administrator had violated Dougherty's First Amendment rights in a campaign to purge the system of leakers.
Dougherty's tips helped reveal that Ackerman, who resigned in 2011 and died in 2013, had steered a $7.5 million emergency security camera contract to a relatively inexperienced firm that wasn't approved for such work - even though an approved firm was already preparing to install the cameras. As Dougherty's attorney put it, he was "the kind of public servant a city can only hope for" - the kind who takes a risk to expose misconduct.
The School District never had a case here, and its lawyers' most recent arguments have an air of desperation. They agreed to let the judge determine damages, for example, and then argued that he had no authority to do so. They also maintained that even though the defendants suspended Dougherty and recommended his termination, it was the School Reform Commission that was responsible for his dismissal. As Sánchez noted, however, the SRC rubber-stamps almost every termination recommended by administrators.
Incredibly, although the district has already lost one appeal of the case to the Third Circuit, lawyer Joe Tucker told The Inquirer that it will challenge the judge's latest ruling.
Of course, regardless of the outcome, the lawyers win. As of last fall, the red-ink-soaked district had already spent $1.37 million on outside law firms - more than four times the damages awarded to Dougherty - to fight lawsuits stemming from the camera contract. The legal bills have no doubt grown substantially since.
In light of the courts' repeated recognition of the importance of free speech, particularly for whistle-blowers, it's time for Ackerman's successor, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., to blow the whistle on the district's expensive, vindictive, and pointless pursuit of this case.