Saturday, September 29, 2007

Teachers, Blogging, the First Amendment, and Professionalism

Here in my little corner of the Capital City we're 6 weeks into the new school year, and what does a new school year bring up? Why, a new issue of California Educator magazine, the mouthpiece rag of the state teachers union!

The most recent issue is about technology in education. I'm not a Luddite on this topic, but I also am not a techno-zealot--I need to be convinced that technology is good, useful, and cost-effective before it gets put into our classrooms. Still, most of the stories in that issue were pretty much what you would expect on the topic.

But there was one that caught my attention, and that was about teachers and blogging. In contrast to CTA's usual in-your-face attitude regarding teachers' rights and privileges, this very short article seemed more than a little cautionary. I may be reading between the lines a bit, but since the point was mentioned more than once, I don't think I am: Ed Code Section 44932, which discusses dismissal of teachers on "immoral or unprofessional conduct" grounds, may be interpreted by a court as a reasonable limitation on First Amendment rights regarding blogging.

I have some experience in this matter. In my first year of blogging, I posted about the Breasts, Not Bombs protest in Berkeley, and linked to pictures. A fellow teacher (and mother) chastised me for the link since her son saw it, and threatened me with job-related actions. I responded in my usual manner--derision and attack--and linked to something else I thought she'd enjoy even less. To get the full flavor of this tale, may I suggest that you go to those two links above and read them as well as the comments. I admitted in the comments that the latter post didn't represent a high point in maturity for me, but it still makes me laugh. Also in the comments, though, is a discussion of whether my post was "actionable" in any way. Here we are, two years later, and according to California Educator magazine, we still don't really have an answer.

Their current article gives examples of teachers who were reprimanded or, in the case of new teachers, not rehired, because of content on links that friends had posted on their Myspace pages. The overall tone of the article is somewhat ominous. That struck me as odd, as California is known for having such strong worker protections--and the CTA adds to that with its additional protections for teachers.

I'm reminded of a story about a South Dakota teacher who commented on this blog once. He told about how how he had written a post on his own blog about an accident that took the life of a student--information that everyone knew, and that was published in the local paper. Had anyone else blogged about it, the story would have ended there, but since he was a teacher, the parents came gunning for him. Taking the post down wasn't enough for them, they wanted his job.

He sent me the post via email. It read almost like a local newspaper account--nothing horrid, certainly no privileged information that a teacher might know about a student. But things are different in South Dakota than here in California, and the complaint wasn't dismissed as it should have been. Things didn't go his way, and while he wasn't fired, he left the district.

Recently another local student died in a car wreck, and this (former) teacher has blogged about the situation. He mentions the previous post, long since removed, at the end of his current post. And he's added commentary to this post, because he cares enough about kids to tell them the truth--you're not a hero if you endanger other people in pursuit of your own thrills, and driving too fast can kill you and others. The difference between this current post and the previous one is that he's no longer teaching, so there's no way for the newly-sonless parents to go after him for what he's posted on his blog.

I'm not usually a fan of gray areas. Are there reasonable limitations, in addition to the obvious Privacy Act issues, on what teachers can post on their personal blogs when done outside of school hours and not on school equipment? Are there reasonable limitations on what actions or activities a teacher may participate in outside of school hours? If you believe that these limitations exist, how would you square them with the First Amendment? Do you think we can or should codify these limitations, or should local "community standards" apply--the old "I know it when I see it" standard, which really isn't a standard at all? What standards should we use for "immoral or unprofessional conduct"--is being a whistleblower "unprofessional" because it might make your school or district look bad?

I don't like Swords of Damocles. Let people know the standards under which they're expected to operate. If those standards are unjust, at least they know what the standards are and can (legally) challenge them. But to have no firm standards at all, just amorphous vapors which can instantly materialize out of nowhere and attack unsuspecting teachers--well, that's no way to run a profession.

Update, 9/30/07: I received an email from the teacher whose tale I tell above, and he's given me permission to reproduce his email here. Additionally, he's provided more information in the comments.

Good post, Darren!

And yes, I am currently not teaching high school. You are right: they did not fire me. The administration was completely dismissive of the parents' demand that I be fired. The board wouldn't even let us discuss termination at the appeal before them (and that was o.k. with me!).

Do let me be clear: the board did not fire me, and there was no sort of sneaky secret "forced resignation" or anything like that. In the midst of the whole fracas, they renewed my contract. I left simply because I was offered a better job -- a research assistantship -- that (1) is
much closer to home, (2) allows me to do much of my work on the computer at home, (3) gives me the chance to complete a doctorate, and (4) pays the same as my old job would have. The fact that I no longer work for a school district that doesn't recognize the First Amendment (a position
they didn't make clear until July, two months after I'd quit) is just icing on a really good cake.

You hit two key points right on the head: we need to tell kids the truth (even if they might not listen), and schools need clear standards so teachers and everyone else know where they stand when they exercise their right to free speech. Thanks for the good writing!

There *was* punishment, but he didn't lose his job over it. Had his next door neighbor written that post, that person would have received no such punishment. What's the difference between this man and his next door neighbor? This man was a teacher, that's all.

And that's not a good enough reason.


Lord Floppington said...

Sure, it's no way to run a profession, but then again, does it really surprise you that the teaching profession might be run that way?

Ellen K said...

I have to admit being wary about posting anything, even to a teachers' website, from my school computer. I sometimes send in letters to the local newspaper, and when my opinions have flown afoul of the People In Charge (mainly football coaches) I was subjected to a bevy of borderline abusive emails. On one in particular, when the Texas legislature was dragging its feet on education funding, I facetiously suggested that if school districts wanted to play hardball, all they had to do was suggest that without funding, there would be No Fall Football in Texas high schools. Well the coaches didn't read all the way through, or didn't understand the concept of sarcasm and buried me in threats and innuendo for which I got no support and in fact one former cheerleader turned teacher actively disassociated herself from me. Which I found humorous to say the least. Anyway, parents are so willing to take things out of context, such as when I told a class that had suffered from a round of flu that I would accept their missing work "no questions asked" and was threatened with removal from my job by a walrussy sort of father who simply wanted an excuse for his little darling failing my class. There is not context, the center will not hold, oh heck, I am going back to watch "This is Spinal Tap."

Anonymous said...

Oh, I agree -- especially since tenure really does not exist down here in Texas.

Especially since I was recently tipped-of by a local Democrat blogger that a group of Democrats (mostly, but not exclusively, bloggers) have been discussing compiling a record of my "greatest hits" from my blog with the intent to contact my principal to either force my firing or the closure of my blog. Mind you, the posts in question have absolutely nothing to do with school and my blog does not identify my school or include my full name, but are instead commentary on terrorism and illegal immigration that they consider to be "racist" and bigoted, as well as commentary on gay marriage that they consider to be "homophobic"-- and that I am therefore morally unfit to continue teaching in a public school.

I guess these folks are so tolerant that they are unwilling to tolerate a dissenting opinion.

But then again, these Democrats did warn me that if I voted for Bush in 2004 that my rights under the First Amendment would be in serious danger before 2008!

caheidelberger said...

It's not a GOP/Dem issue for me. It's the simple matter of parents attempting to use the school district to punish me for speech they did not like, even though that speech took place outside of school. I posted on matters of public knowledge from my home computer to a personal blog. The parents wanted and the school administration upheld sanction against that speech act. That's a scary precedent, no matter which party you belong to.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, that your case is not a Dem/Rep issue.

However, in my case it most certainly is.

I'm just hoping that they don't carry through on the threat -- I'll fight the good fight, but really would prefer not to need to do so.

caheidelberger said...

If you have to fight that good fight, RWR, then I wish you the best. I would think your lefty detractors wouldn't stand a chance. But I've been surprised before....

Among other problems here in SD, with its lowest-in-the-nation teacher salaries and toothless teachers union, schools and parents know that teachers often won't have the money, let alone the will, to wage full-scale legal warfare to defend themselves against frivolous claims. Easier to roll over than invest the time and legal fees.

Mister Teacher said...

I was called into my principal's office last year and "warned" to be cautious about what I post on my blog. Especially since I don't blog anonymously. But I am very careful never to use anyone's real name or dental records.
Also, the post that my principal had read had been more than a little sarcastic in regards to her overwhelming desire for gains. I had mentioned that if she said that word one more time, I was going to get her a big jug of GAIN laundry detergent for her b-day.

loonyhiker said...

What a sad state of affairs. It is just one more example of how teachers are sometimes treated as second class citizens.