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Industrial hemp may be a boon to the environment, but it hasn’t done much for the teaching career of Donna Cockrel. Industrial hemp is one of two varieties of the hemp plant, the other being marijuana. In 1996, Cockrel gave her Shelby County, Ky., fifth-grade class a presentation in which the use of industrial hemp fibers as an alternative to cutting trees was discussed. As part of the presentation, actor Woody Harrelson addressed Cockrel’s class about the relative benefits of hemp. He was accompanied by an entourage that included representatives of the Kentucky Hemp Museum, the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association, hemp growers from overseas and, inevitably, a CNN news crew. However many millions of TV viewers enjoyed Harrelson in his role as Woody on Cheers, some residents of Shelby County did not enjoy his role as teacher for a day. Several parents and teachers wrote to complain about the visit, the fact that it occurred on the same day as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program “graduation” and because Cockrel allowed hemp seeds — illegal in Kentucky — to be passed around the room during the presentation. On the recommendation of Cockrel’s principal, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Leon Mooneyman fired Cockrel on July 15, 1997, citing “insubordination, conduct unbecoming a teacher, inefficiency, incompetency, and neglect of duty.” On June 4, 1998, Cockrel sued, claiming that she was fired in violation of her First Amendment free speech right to discuss the potential environmental benefits of hemp. While not deciding Cockrel’s state law breach-of-contract claim, the trial court granted the school board’s motion for summary judgment on the First Amendment retaliation claim, holding that Cockrel’s presentation was not protected speech. Specifically, the court held that Cockrel’s speech was private speech by a teacher in her role as an employee, not as a citizen speaking on matters of public concern, and that she did not have a constitutional right to discuss industrial hemp in her classroom. But Cockrel may get her trial after all. On Nov. 9, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the Kentucky court and remanded the case for trial. The appellate court held that the issue was, in fact, one of public concern, citing the trial court’s own opinion, where it said that “the issue of industrial hemp is politically charged and of great concern to certain citizens.” The court acknowledged that Cockrel’s speech had led to some problems, but it also observed that school officials told CNN that there was “educational value” in teaching about industrial hemp and that, more important, school officials had given prior approval for the visits. Cockrel v. Shelby County Sch. Bd., No 00-5259 (6th Cir. Nov. 9, 2001). Trial dates are pending.

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