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Rainbowland teacher files federal lawsuit against Waukesha School District

Melissa Tempel said her First Amendment rights were violated when she was fired in July

Dolly Parton, left, and Miley Cyrus perform "Jolene" at the 61st annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles
Dolly Parton, left, and Miley Cyrus perform “Jolene” at the 61st annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 10, 2019. Administrators at Heyer Elementary School in Waukesha, Wis., aren’t letting a first-grade class perform “Rainbowland,” a Cyrus and Parton duet from Cyrus’ 2017 album “Younger Now,” promoting LGBTQ acceptance, because they say the song could be seen as controversial. Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

The Waukesha teacher who was fired for publicly criticizing the school district’s decision to ban the song “Rainbowland” from an elementary school concert has filed a federal First Amendment lawsuit.

Melissa Tempel was put on administrative leave for six weeks and subsequently fired on July 12 after the School District of Waukesha’s School Board voted unanimously to uphold the superintendent’s recommendation for termination.

According to the lawsuit, Tempel was hired by the district in 2018 and had never been disciplined before this incident.

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In late March, the first-grade dual-language teacher blasted the district on social media after it excluded the song by Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton. The lyrics were widely believed to focus on acceptance, but district officials said they found the song “could be deemed controversial.”

She told news outlets, including Wisconsin Public Radio, that the Muppets’ “Rainbow Connection” was initially banned but later accepted after pushback from parents and the Alliance for Education in Waukesha.

She also told WPR the district had not offered any specific reasons for the ban, but “the only common thread between those two songs was the word rainbow.”

At the time, officials said they took issue with Tempel’s handling of the incident on social media. Tempel tweeted about the incident on her personal account. The lawsuit argues those statements were free speech and therefore should be protected from retaliation in the workplace.

The lawsuit also attempts to draw parallels between Tempel’s firing and the ongoing removal of pro-LGBTQ+ signs and flags from classrooms.

Hundreds of students, parents and teachers protested these bans since 2021. In June 2022, 54 teachers resigned from the district, with several testifying at a board meeting they were leaving because of the policy banning LGBTQ+ signage and monitoring of how race and diversity was taught in classrooms, according to the lawsuit.

“Parents also testified publicly at the June 2022 Board Meeting that they were removing their children from the district because of the school’s lack of acceptance and respect,” according to the lawsuit.

Tempel said she is “devastated” that she’s not returning to school this fall.

“I am a life-long educator, and I have missed my students since I was forced on administrative leave in April,” she said in a statement. “To be preparing for a lawsuit instead of for the first day of school has been very difficult for me.”

Waukesha school board members and Superintendent James Sebert did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In an emailed statement, Sebert said the district learned about the lawsuit from media and would “work with legal counsel on next steps.”

Sebert and the district are named as defendants.

“The district and Dr. Sebert must be held accountable for the action taken against Ms. Tempel, not only for Ms. Tempel’s sake, but for the sake of all educators who will see what happened to Ms. Tempel and choose not to speak for fear of losing their own jobs,” said attorney Summer Murshid of Hawks Quindel, S.C.

The case is filed in Federal District Court in the Eastern District of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Division.