One “lucky dog”
Law School alumnus has spent more than three decades doing what he loves—defending public school employees
Michael Simpson’s presentation to public school educators starts with a projected image of a 1974 Playgirl photo of a California teacher who was fired after appearing nude in the magazine.
“Back in the day you really had to try hard to get yourself in the media,” Simpson says he tells his audience.
“Then I compare that to what teachers have been putting on their Facebook pages.”
A lawyer for the National Education Association in Washington, D.C., for the past 31 years, Simpson helps public school employees understand their rights within the law as well as the pitfalls that can cost them their careers—and represents those in court who are dismissed from their positions.
Coming from a family of educators—his mom was a professor in UGA’s College of Education—Simpson understands the challenges facing 21st century public school employees. Among the issues facing the association these days: the rights of public school teachers to free speech, the abolition of bargaining rights for teachers in Wisconsin, Idaho and Ohio and immigration laws that threaten students’ rights to public education.
On the association’s agenda: A challenge to various state laws that reward and punish teachers based primarily on students’ scores on standardized tests.
Born and raised in Athens, Simpson went out of state to Davidson College in North Carolina for his undergraduate degree in German. He considered teaching, but decided being a German teacher was not the right fit. He wanted to do something to bring about change.
After graduating from UGA’s Law School in 1975, Simpson took a job as a legal aid attorney in Rome, Ga. Caught up in the excitement of Jimmy Carter’s presidential victory in 1976, he moved to Washington. He spent several months as a day laborer before applying for and receiving a fellowship from the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation. On that fellowship he ran a small nonprofit organization, the Student Press Law Center, which is an advocate for student First Amendment rights, for freedom of online speech and for open government on campus.
In that position he met the general counsel for the NEA. He went to work for the association as soon as his fellowship was over.
During his first couple of years he worked on federal appellate cases. Local and state lawsuits by public school employees are handled by the local and state arms of the education association (in Georgia the Georgia Association of Educators). The NEA counsel steps in if the case reaches the federal courts of appeal.
In the years since, he has become more of a resource for some 500 attorneys in the U.S., defending public school employees, maintaining a database of briefs and memos, and advising NEA-affiliated attorneys on issues such as constitutional law, employment discrimination, free speech and due process.
In the early 1980s he began writing a column for the publication NEA Today. “Rights Watch” focuses on timely legal issues that face teachers and other public school employees. Topics have included bullying, helping school employees understand their legal responsibility to address reported bullying as well as how to handle it when they are bullied themselves, and social networking issues.
“I learn something every day I come here,” says Simpson, who is planning to retire in the next few years, possibly to Athens. “It’s never dull. It’s never stale.”
“I’m a lucky dog. I work in areas of the law I find very interesting to me, stimulating and challenging. I work for the good guys. Teachers are undervalued and underpaid.”