CHARLESTON — A former Huntington High School teacher fired after anti-Muslim and racially charged posts from her personal Twitter account surfaced in 2016 is now suing her former employers and accusing them of infringing on her First Amendment rights.
Mary Durstein, a former history teacher and 17-year employee of Cabell County Schools, filed a federal civil suit Tuesday in the Southern District of West Virginia.
The suit names former Cabell County Schools Assistant Superintendent Todd Alexander (now superintendent of schools in Wayne County), the Cabell County Board of Education and State Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine as defendants.
Several tweets from Durstein’s now-deactivated personal Twitter account (@pigpen63) appeared to condone racist actions against black people and Muslims.
Durstein was placed on administrative leave Jan. 9, 2017 — the day the tweets were shared by a Marshall University student to Cabell County Schools and local news outlets — and officially fired during the Board of Education’s March 6 meeting two months later. The state Department of Education also has said it has opened an inquiry into possibly revoking Durstein’s teaching license.
The West Virginia Public Employees Grievance Board denied an unlawful termination grievance filed by Durstein in September 2017.
In one tweet dated July 18, 2015, Durstein said, “#cashinIn #WakeUpAmerica #viewcrew Who cares if we offend Muslims at least they keep their heads on tact. They’re the enemy!”
In one of her last tweets before her two-month suspension prior to termination, dated Jan. 5, 2017, Durstein responded to a tweet that said, “Can you imagine how many riots we would have around the country if the terrorists were white?”
The tweet contained a photo of four black people, two males and two females, with the caption, “Imagine if these were 4 white people torturing a special need black kid!”
In her response, Durstein tweeted, “this could have been Obama’s children.”
Durstein’s account, which had only 20 to 30 followers, was publicly visible, but the lawsuit claims the tweets had no impact on her professional duty prior to Jan. 9.
Durstein’s civil suit alleges Alexander violated her First Amendment rights by ordering her to deactivate her personal Twitter. The filings state Durstein used her Twitter account on personal time outside school and from a personal device.
The lawsuit also claims Alexander ordered Durstein not to speak to the media when the story broke Jan. 9, although Cabell County Schools had facilitated other interviews with local outlets. Local outlets covering the story that day included The Herald-Dispatch, the Charleston Gazette-Mail and WSAZ-TV.
Having been ordered not to speak to the media on her own behalf, Durstein claims she lost the ability to defend herself publicly the day the story made news.
The suit seeks a total $400,000 in compensatory and punitive damages from Alexander personally. He did not respond to an email for comment Thursday.
The filing also claims the Cabell County Board of Education had made a practice of coercing educators to delete their personal social media accounts when supervisors disapprove of their views, citing prior similar treatment of an unnamed Huntington High guidance counselor accused of “gay bashing” by a school principal.
The suit seeks $100,000 in compensatory damages from the Cabell BOE. Jedd Flowers, director of communications for Cabell County Schools, said Thursday the district does not generally comment on pending litigation.
Durstein seeks no compensation from Paine, only a declaratory statement that the First Amendment bars the state superintendent from suspending or revoking her teaching certificate based on the content of her tweets. The West Virginia Department of Education did not respond to an email for comment Thursday.
The suit states Durstein retains her teaching license and has not been informed of any findings by the state superintendent.
No court date has been set.