A veteran Fairfax County physical education teacher has been denied a pay raise this year and is on probation because he wrote a satirical letter to the school newspaper responding to allegations of sexism in gym classes.

The letter by Donald L. Seemuller caused such an uproar at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke that it "severely impaired" the teacher's effectiveness, according to an evaluation by Principal George Stepp. Stepp did not question Seemuller's teaching skills in giving him the low job rating.

In his letter, which was published in January, Seemuller said he permits his 16-year-old daughter to drive his son "to and from his many activities," and allows his wife to do "light yard work, enabling me to play golf . . . .

"Hopefully this letter will convince those girls in physical education at Lake Braddock that we have the utmost respect for their feminine talents," he concluded.

The Seemuller case raises the delicate issue of how far a school system may go in restraining one of its employes. Seemuller contends that his constitutional right of free speech was violated; school system officials say that his letter disrupted school operations and that they have a right to take action.

Seemuller, 42, whose appeal was denied by the county School Board on Thursday, said his union, the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, will sue the county over the low job rating, which cost $5,300 in pay this year. In addition to the free-speech issue, Seemuller said he did not receive proper notification that his pay would be frozen as a result of the evaluation.

Because he has been put on probation, Seemuller faces another evaluation this year and could be dismissed.

"I thought I had a right to write a letter in a public forum and not be punished for it," said Seemuller, who has been a Fairfax County teacher since 1969 and has never before received a low job rating. "I think that I was treated unfairly."

School system officials said the case is not about free speech but about poor judgment on Seemuller's part.

In a brief to the School Board, which considered only written evidence in making its decision, Superintendent Robert R. Spillane argued that the ninth grade teacher's letter "contributed to the impression that Lake Braddock has a sexist environment."

Court rulings allow school systems to limit free speech if it disrupts the efficient operation of a school, he said.

Seemuller was among several dozen county teachers whose pay was frozen because of low job ratings under a policy announced by Spillane last year to win support for his costly merit pay plan. A challenge to the pay freeze will be part of Seemuller's lawsuit.

The county's largest teachers union, the Fairfax Education Association, has announced plans to file an unrelated legal challenge to the pay freeze order.

Seemuller's letter was published a month after the school newspaper printed an anonymous letter from a female student complaining of sexism in gym classes and appeared the same day that a group of girls met with Stepp to talk over their grievances.

The school's Human Relations Committee, a faculty-parent-student group, also held several meetings on the issue during the year. All agree that Seemuller's name was not mentioned as an offender.

Seemuller said he showed the letter to friends and fellow teachers before it was printed, and all but one thought it was funny.

"I laughed and the kids around me laughed," said teacher Patrick McCarthy, the school newspaper adviser. "It's so obviously tongue-in-cheek for most people."

But the school system's brief said that several female teachers and at least one male teacher at the school read the letter and urged Seemuller not to submit it for publication.

According to the brief, Stepp said he saw the letter before it was printed and was "distresed" by it, but he has a policy of not censoring the newspaper. Seemuller said Stepp should have talked with him informally beforehand if he was concerned about the letter's potential impact.

The letter touched off an "immediate uproar," school system officials said in their brief, prompting 40 to 50 complaints from parents and community leaders, 40 to 50 complaints from teachers and more than 30 complaints from students.

McCarthy, however, said the newspaper received no complaints about the letter even though it usually does about controversial topics.

The result was that Seemuller was asked to talk with the school's Human Relations Committee, whose minutes reveal that it was not satisfied with his explanation. Seemuller also wrote an apology that was printed in the school paper along with a student editor's note expressing the hope that "the harassment of one teacher will not scare others from contributing."

"He became a victim of trying to use freedom of speech," said Lake Braddock senior Brooke Wortham, 17, editor of The Bear Facts, the student newspaper. "I did not feel he should apologize . . . . I never found him to be sexist at all."

Spillane, reached yesterday, said: "There are times to be facetious and funny, and times to be serious." He said Seemuller "has to take the responsibility for his actions and his free speech. Free speech, as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, does not include the right to yell 'Fire!' in a crowded theater. Free speech doesn't include making sexist remarks when he's a professional teacher."

"In retrospect, maybe {the letter} wasn't the right thing to do," Seemuller said, but "I am not not a sexist."