SIOUX CITY -- A magistrate has dismissed harassment charges filed against a Sioux City school teacher, ruling that letters she sent to Superintendent Paul Gausman and other school officials may have been "annoying, rude and disheartening," but were nonetheless protected by the First Amendment's right to free speech.
Because of that constitutional protection, Woodbury County Magistrate Jessica Noll ruled Monday, the state is unable to maintain its case against Julie Fischer because it would be unable to prove that Fischer's letters were without a legitimate purpose, one of the elements required to secure a conviction for third-degree harassment.
"The receivers of these communications may have interpreted the messages as offensive and insulting. However, criticizing colleagues is a legitimate purpose," Noll said in her ruling.
Two cases including six counts of misdemeanor third-degree harassment will be dismissed, Noll ordered.
Woodbury County Attorney Patrick Jennings said in an emailed statement that the ruling was disappointing, and his office is reviewing the ruling to determine whether to file an appeal.
Fischer's future with the school district remains unclear.
"The district has been monitoring the cases involving criminal charges against Julie Fischer. Ms. Fischer remains on administrative leave. No final determination has been made regarding action by the school district relating to Ms. Fischer’s employment," district spokeswoman Mandie Mayo said.
Fischer, a TAG specialist and West Middle School teacher, was placed on paid administrative leave last summer after being charged in Woodbury County District Court on Aug. 20 with sending the letters to Gausman, assistant superintendent Kimberly Buryanek, West Middle teachers Jennifer Pottorff, Laura Stokes and Seth Sackman and West Middle Principal Katherine Towler.
A frequent critic of the superintendent and the school district, Fischer was accused of sending a letter to Gausman that said, "Your time is coming……You lying SOB."
Letters to other teachers and administrators were critical of their competency and actions.
The letters were traced to Fischer through bar codes on stamps purchased at Sioux City's Jackson Street post office. Fischer had acknowledged buying the stamps, but denied mailing the letters, pleading not guilty to all charges.
In his Feb. 4 motion to dismiss the charges, Sioux City attorney David Reinschmidt said the questions of whether Fischer wrote the letters or whether the recipients felt harassed was not the issue. Rather, Fischer had the right to challenge the constitutionality of her charges under her First Amendment right to free speech.
Noll wrote in her three-page ruling that in order to prosecute for third-degree harassment under Iowa Code, the county attorney's office must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Fischer intended to intimidate, annoy or alarm another person by a communication in writing without legitimate purpose and in a manner likely to cause the other person annoyance or harm.
The case, Noll said, revolved around what constitutes a legitimate purpose. Citing previous court rulings, Noll said, offensive language is insufficient to negate and criminalize a legitimate protest. The statements in the letters Fischer was accused of sending were not "fighting words," which also could make the comments a criminal offense.
"The language and content of the letters are hurtful, yet the communications do not rise to the level of 'fighting words,'" Noll wrote. "The court does find that the writings do constitute a legitimate purpose. Therefore, the state is unable to maintain its case."
Fischer, 51, still faces one count of stalking in Union County, South Dakota, where she is accused of sending harassing letters to another female co-worker who lives in South Dakota. Fischer has pleaded not guilty, and a trial is scheduled for May 20. A motion to dismiss that case was filed Monday.
Fischer in August filed a complaint against the school district with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission claiming that district officials falsely accused her of harassment in retaliation for her outspoken views.
Fischer said in September that a commission staff member had confirmed that an investigation would proceed. The status of the investigation is not known, and the commission cannot publicly release details of ongoing cases.