Gender and Schooling

Ending bullying and harassment, and promoting sexual diversity in schools.

Hate Speech: Is a Higher Standard Fair for Teachers?

What are the limits on teachers' expression of personal beliefs?

LGBT history month bulletin board
LGBT history month bulletin board
HRC.org
"Homosexuality is a perverted spirit... I know sin and it breeds like a cancer," reads an excerpt from New Jersey teacher Vivi Knox's Facebook wall. She was responding to a bulletin board in her school that posted information about the contributions of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals in recognition of LGBT history month and National Coming Out Day. Her post continued, "Why parade your unnatural immoral behaviors before the rest of us? AND YOU ARE WRONG! I/WE DO NOT HAVE TO ACCEPT ANYTHING, ANYONE. ANY BEHAVIOR OR ANY CHOICES! I DO NOT HAVE TO TOLERATE ANYTHING OTHERS WISH TO DO."

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This incident is reminiscent of another teacher's tirade last spring. A Florida teacher, Jerry Buell, posted a response to the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York by saying he was "sickened" by the news and that it was a sin and New York was part of a "cesspool." As a result, he was reassigned while administrators considered appropriate action.

In the days before Facebook and social media, there were two similar cases adjudicated in Canada that provide a way for understanding how to strike a balance between freedom of expression and the duty of schools and teachers to provide a safe learning environment free from discrimination.

In February 2004, a B.C. teacher, Chris Kempling, was suspended for one month for "conduct unbecoming" of a teacher: He published articles that were considered to be defaming of homosexuals in a local newspaper ("Kempling v. British Columbia College of Teachers," 2004, para.1). The teacher appealed this decision to the B.C. Supreme Court, but the court held that the BCCT was within its jurisdiction to suspend the teacher. The court's rationale for its decision was based on the "wrongful public linking of his professional position to the off-duty expression of personally held discriminatory views in order to lend credibility to those views" ("Kempling v. British Columbia College of Teachers", 2004, para. 2). This decision reflected a similar judgment made when a teacher in New Brunswick was making public statements (on local radio and in distributing pamphlets) that were defamatory to Jews and created a "poisoned learning environment" in the school as a result (Ross v. New Brunswick School District 15, 1996).

In my work with teacher candidates they are often frustrated and outraged that as teachers they are held to a higher standard for their behaviors that take place on personal time and off of school grounds. Few other professions have the same relationship with children and families in a community. There is a deeper impact when a teacher says something discriminatory and then carries that message (by association) into classrooms with hundreds of children and families knowing and feeling the "poison" of those discriminatory views. Now with Facebook and other social networking tools, educators and students are still learning hard lessons about public/private spaces. Messages posted online travel quickly and though they can be deleted, the evidence is usually scattered on other hard drives and servers for anyone to print, save, and share.

An L.A. Times opinion piece by Karin Klein published in August about the case of the Florida teacher argued that a person should be able to have a "publicly expressed opinion on his or her own time." In a democracy there are limits on speech and for teachers in public schools these limits are even more stringent. Students will not be able to learn in classrooms where they know that they or their families are despised for who they love. I tell the teachers that I work with that they should feel free to express their beliefs among their family and friends, and in private settings, but at any point that an expression becomes public or that they act on those beliefs in a public setting, they risk professional consequences. Bryan Warnick wrote a valuable piece in the journal Educational Researcher titled Student speech rights and the special characteristics of the school environment (2009). In this article he focuses on student rights, but the seven unique elements he addresses are relevant in considering teacher speech: age of students, attendance requirements, multiple school constituencies, public accountability, school-associated nature of speech, need to promote educational goals. Students don't have a choice about whether they can go to school or not, and they don't have a choice about whose classroom they get to sit in. These factors must be taken into consideration when reflecting on the appropriate action to take against teachers who publicly express discriminatory views.

Public schools are responsible for educating a diverse student population in order to better prepare citizens for active participation in our democratic society. As such, teachers should be held to a higher standard in order to ensure schools are sites where students feel safe and respected and are not subject to discrimination. I hope the New Jersey school takes prompt action against this teacher so she and other teachers recognize the limits of their expression. If you agree, you can sign an online petition here.

 

Elizabeth Meyer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California.

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