Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Teacher Free Speech

It's an interesting argument. Should teachers express personal views in class, or should they be "neutral"?

I lean towards the former for a few reasons. First, I'm not sure how one can remain neutral about many topics--say, the war in Iraq. If a teacher were to go beyond mere names, dates, and places, could that be considered violating neutrality? And what about the names, dates, and places that a teacher chooses to discuss, or not to discuss--aren't those also influenced by the teachers personal opinions?

I don't view students, especially high school students, as flowers to be treasured. They're people whose minds are growing at an amazing rate, and they're capable of processing tremendous amounts of information. I assert, without any evidence to back me up here, that they should be able to hear information, both facts and opinions, that disagree with their own, without having an emotional or intellectual meltdown.

In fact, I've said it several times before: teenagers are capable of so much thought and analysis, but what they lack is real-world experience. Until they get that for themselves, they can and should learn from the adults in their life. That is what will give them so-called critical thinking skills; they can't think critically about something until they have some facts about which to think.

So I'm very concerned about the content of this San Francisco Chronicle article about the apparent lack of ability for a teacher to share even a personal opinion in class. I don't agree with the teacher who, in response to a student's question, answered that she always honks for peace, but I can't imagine her being fired for such an admission, either. That's almost Orwellian in its implications.

Here are some key, if chilling, excerpts from the article:

But legal analysts said the Mayer ruling was probably less important as a precedent than as a stark reminder that the law provides little protection for schoolteachers who express their beliefs.

The Mayer ruling was disappointing but not surprising, said Michael Simpson, assistant general counsel of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union. For the last decade, he said, federal courts "have not been receptive to arguments that teachers, both K-12 and higher education, have free-speech rights in the classroom."

On the other hand, said Francisco Negrón, lawyer for the National School Boards Association, if teachers were free to express their viewpoints in class, school boards would be less able to do their job of determining the curriculum and complying with government demands for accountability.

That's complete and total crap. I'd throw it back on Mr. Negron and ask him to list exactly what I can and cannot say, then, because he obviously doesn't trust me to use any judgement at all. Continuing:

"Teachers hire out their own speech and must provide the service for which employers are willing to pay," a three-judge panel of the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Jan. 24. "The Constitution does not entitle teachers to present personal views to captive audiences against the instructions of elected officials."

Fine. Elected officials should tell me what to say, then. Perhaps my local legislators or school board would like to write my script for teaching trigonometry. Good luck with that.

Mayer, the court said, was told by her bosses that she could teach about the war "as long as she kept her opinions to herself."

How, exactly, is she supposed to do that? Horrible instructions.

In 1969, the Supreme Court upheld a high school student's right to wear a black armband as a silent protest against the Vietnam War and barred schools from stifling student expression unless it was disruptive or interfered with education. The court retreated from that standard somewhat in a 1988 ruling upholding censorship of student newspapers, and will revisit the issue in a pending case involving an Alaskan student who was suspended for unfurling a banner outside the school grounds that read, "Bong Hits 4 Jesus."

The Supreme Court has never ruled on teachers' free speech. In lower courts, teachers have won cases by showing they were punished for violating policies that school officials never explained to them beforehand or invented after the fact. A federal appeals court in 2001 ruled in favor of a fifth-grade teacher in Kentucky who was fired for bringing actor Woody Harrelson to her class to discuss the benefits of industrial hemp, an appearance that school officials had approved.

y, Tinker v. Des Moines, the 1969 ruling referred to above, specifically addresses the issue:

First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. This has been the unmistakable holding of this Court for almost 50 years...

In order for the State in the person of school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint. Certainly where there is no finding and no showing that engaging in the forbidden conduct would "materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school," the prohibition cannot be sustained.

And that was in the majority opinion of the court, the part that matters.

Even still, this Sword of Damocles hangs over the head of teachers. However, there's hope for sanity in California, of all places, again according to the Chronicle.

Beverly Tucker, chief counsel of the NEA-affiliated California Teachers Association, said she doubts that federal courts in California would take as conservative a position as the court in Mayer's case. But she expects school districts to cite the ruling in the next case that arises.

"If I were a public school teacher, I would live in fear that some innocuous remark made in the classroom in response to a question from a pupil would lead to me being terminated" under such a ruling, Tucker said.


I understand the argument that "you're paid to teach the curriculum." There's no "nothing more" at the end of that statement. Assuming I teach the curriculum, why not discuss current events with some students if they so desire? Why not answer their questions about something outside of the curriculum, why not open their minds to other, not unreasonable, ways of viewing the world?

Teaching is a social process. It requires interaction between teacher and student to function most effectively. I talk about a variety of topics in class; it helps build rapport with students. They know and respect me as a person, not some mythical being that doesn't exist outside of the school walls. How could you operate any other way?

But let's look at realistic example. At my school is a counselor who wears a Star of David necklace daily. With responsibility for over 400 students, she no doubt has some students who are, to put it delicately, of a nationality or religion that isn't positively predisposed to being around Stars of David. Could she reasonably be told not to wear it at school? Could I be told not to wear my red, white, and blue elephant lapel pin? Just what are the limits to these prohibitions?

I don't think it's ok for a teacher to be fired for saying "I always honk for peace." It's ok for her to be mocked and ridiculed for saying it, but not fired.

And you can quote me on that. In class, if need be =)


Law and Order Teacher said...

This has suddenly become a hot topic. It is a constant struggle in class, especially when teaching history, not to allow your personal opinion to color the conversation. Students, like most people, have an unfortunate tendency to try to pull historical figures from their time and place them into today's situations. They want to know what Jefferson, Washington, et.al. would've done today. This his hard to counter without letting your opinion to show through. I find that students, especially, upperclassmen, have fairly polished opinions that they aren't afraid to share in class. This results in lively discussions. I merely referee to allow everyone to be heard. That absolves me of having to give my opinion while allowing them to engage in lively debate. Usually the discussions are very interesting. It is hard to not jump in but I fight the urge in order to allow their opinions to evolve through the discussion and airing of their views.
I surely am very suspicious of school boards that try to censor teachers except in the most egregious of cases. This then brings up the situation of who sets the standards.

Mr. Lucchese said...

I'm curious to see what precedents will be set on this issue in the near future. As a staunch advocate of civil liberties, I certainly don't want to infringe on anyone else's. But I'm an opinionated guy and I love debate. (That may be why I've started commenting on a blog where my political views are in the infinitessimal minority.) What are my rights as a teacher? There's no Star of Atheism to wear around my neck, but if there were, could I be fired for it? I'll be teaching math and science, which have much to do with some fairly controversial subjects in today's political scene. How can I ask the students to participate in an open forum if I am forced to bite my tongue?

Unknown said...

I lived in Bloomington for over 30 years. Bloomington is as moonbatty as Berkeley, especially the school administrations. There's more to this than what the story reports. No way would a teacher in Bloomington be canned for this--though I can easily imagine a teacher in Bloomington being fired for supporting the war.

Anonymous said...

two things:

1. if it was ruled that teachers could not cite their oppinions, does that mean a teacher can not allow a student to cite theirs? what if a student was citing incorrect information about his or her oppinion, would the teacher not be allowed to provide feedback with correct information without giving away his or her oppinion? while we're young, students need to learn to stand up against opposition. meaning, we should learn in a constructive environment (school) about being able to stand up to our opinions when confronted by someone in authority.

and why is it always in schools? why can a boss argue with an employee about his or her oppinion? could the person in charge of job training (which counts as school) be forbiden to even slightly mention his or her oppinion? what about doctors to their patiens or coaches to teemates? do we have to limit ALL types of oppinions, or just the ones in schools, where we're SUPOSED to feel safe at and where we're SUPOSED to learn about society?

2. if it's ruled that teachers are free to talk about their oppinions, then wouldn't it be a double standard that teachers can't talk about communism? if i'm not mistaken, i think i remember hearing a teacher mention that history teachers can teach about communism, but can't express their opinions. ...doesnt that leave a double standard? a teacher can talk about why he or she loves democracy or capitalism, but not why he or she hates or loves communism. why?

just a couple thoughts

Darren said...

Interesting that you bring up that little slice of ed code, Scott, and here's how I'll answer it.

Communism is an ideology that requires destruction of the current state. No government should have to *pay* employees to try to inspire the destruction of the state.

Anonymous said...

true....but what if an employee wants to praise communism just as much as an employee wants to praise capitolism? should one be allowed and not the other?

Darren said...

Again, no government should feel at all bad about refusing to spend money on those who advocate for that government's downfall.

ningelito said...

No reason that they should "feel bad" about it, but why is it that a teacher cannot teach about communism, let alone just talk about it?

It's a valid form of economics/politics, regardless of whether or not you or I agree with it.

I can understand their side of the argument. They see us a "flowers to be preserved." Of course. It's outrageously demeaning, as you can easily see.

You preach your conservative rhetoric quite frequently...and I haven't changed because of it. I don't think anyone has. Now then, you've enlightened me on numerous topics, and given me a different perspective on history and politics——a side that I do not experience in AP US History, for example. The Blendizzle gives us the history, not so much on the commentary.

Yet you do. You're an educator first, a math teacher second; that's how I see it, and I'm sure many agree with it.

Your job is to teach me. If you finish teaching me math, and I turn down any extra assistance, then why is it that you can't bash on my fellow liberals and me?

If I'm ok with it, so should they.

Seriously, the world will be such a better place when I'm Herr Dictator Almighty of the Democratic Republic of Earth.

We won't have to deal with this school district garbage.

Darren said...

I sense a compliment in there, Nigel, but I view myself as a math teacher first and everything else second. Our political discussions may be more in the front of your mind because they're far more entertaining than the ambiguous case of the law of sines, but you've learned much more math than anything else in my class.

And are you saying that you get "just the facts, ma'am" in history class? Maybe *that* is why history is so often boring. I'm with socialist James Loewen on this one; he's author of Lies My Teacher Told Me. I don't agree with his slant on history, but it's sure a lot more interesting to learn it his way than just names, dates, and places.

As for your political aspirations, give them up now while you're young. When I'm elected World Dictator, things are *really* gonna change!!!

Maura Larkins said...

Beverly Tucker, head counsel for the California Teachers Association, is hardly a proponent of free speech. She supported a decision to dismiss a teacher for filing grievances and a lawsuit.