John J. Tharp Jr.
John J. Tharp Jr.

A federal judge cleared the way for a teacher to pursue a lawsuit accusing Illinois prison officials of violating her right to free speech when they canceled a debate course she taught behind bars.

In a written opinion last week, U.S. District Judge John J. Tharp Jr. declined to dismiss the First Amendment claim Katrina Burlet brought against Gladyse Taylor, the assistant director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, among other defendants.

Tharp held Burlet adequately stated a claim that she was a victim of viewpoint discrimination at the hands of officials who disagreed with the opinions of the inmates she taught.

Burlet teaches debate at Wheaton College and Hinsdale Central High School.

In October 2017, IDOC gave Burlet permission to volunteer as a debate teacher at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill.

She maintains she taught her class without incident. And she contends a March 2018 debate held before an audience that included 18 members of the Illinois General Assembly got postive reviews.

But Taylor was not pleased with the debate, Burlet alleges.

She alleges Taylor was unhappy with the topic — the relative merits of different parole systems that Illinois might adopt.

“It was only after Burlet conducted a debate on parole policy, before an audience including a substantial number of state legislators, that Taylor intervened,” Tharp wrote, describing Burlet’s allegations.

“At that point, Taylor allegedly told Burlet, in no uncertain terms, that she disapproved of the class’ views on reinstating parole in Illinois and that its communication with state legislators must halt.”

Burlet alleges Taylor also made “veiled threats” to members of the class, suggesting she could transfer them to other prisons if she was named in any suits.

Officials canceled two scheduled upcoming debates and banned her from IDOC property because of the debate topic, Burlet alleges.

And Burlet contends then-IDOC director John Baldwin defamed her in a June 2018 interview when he maintained her class was canceled because she had failed to comply with required safety and security measures.

Burlet filed her suit against Taylor and Baldwin in August 2018. The two filed a motion to dismiss three months later.

In his opinion, Tharp dismissed without prejudice the defamation claim Burlet filed under Illinois law. He gave her until May 15 to file an amended complaint.

Tharp rejected the argument that Baldwin’s comments about Burlet not following safety protocols constituted defamation per se.

Tharp acknowledged that statements suggesting someone lacks the ability to perform his or her job or displays a lack of integrity in performing the job can amount to defamation per se.

But such a statement is not actionable “if it is reasonably capable of an innocent construction,” Tharp wrote, quoting Green v. Rogers, 927 N.E.2d 450 (Ill. 2009).

Right before Baldwin made the statement, Tharp wrote, he said the debate program “was really well-received.”

“Viewed in this context, an innocent construction of Baldwin’s comments is available: Baldwin’s words were not derogatory of Burlet’s ability in her trade — he was complimentary of her as a debate coach — but indicated only that she was a poor fit for IDOC,” Tharp wrote.

In declining to throw out Burlet’s free speech claim, Tharp wrote courts apply the test in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), to determine the validity of a regulation or policy decision that limits “the First Amendment rights of outsiders to access prisons and communicate with prisoners.”

Courts ask whether the regulation or decision is “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests,” Tharp wrote, quoting Turner.

Limits on speech, he wrote, “based solely on the message conveyed are impermissible.”

And assuming Burlet’s allegations are true, she has stated a plausible claim “that Taylor was motivated by illegitimate viewpoint discrimination,” Tharp wrote.

He issued his opinion last Friday in Katrina Burlet v. John Baldwin, et al., No. 18 C 5875.

An attorney for Burlet, Alan S. Mills of Uptown People’s Law Center, said her legal team is pleased with Tharp’s ruling.

“In no uncertain terms, he upheld the right of volunteers not to be retaliated against when they say something that the administration doesn’t like,” Mills said in a statement.

“The protection of the First Amendment is particularly important in prison, where officials exert total control over the lives of prisoners, and the volunteers who seek to help them.”

Mills said he expects the evidence at trial to “overwhelmingly support Ms. Burlet’s claim that she was targeted for unconstitutional retaliation by top prison officials.”

Other attorneys representing Burlet include Julia A. Derish of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP.

The lead attorney for Taylor and Baldwin is Assistant Attorney General Sarah Hughes Newman.

Spokeswoman Annie Thompson of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office declined to comment because the case is pending.