Thursday, October 20, 2011

Free Speech Hurts

By Keith Massey, PhD Connect with me on Google+ and Twitter. Explore my novels at Lingua Sacra Publishing.

As a public school teacher in New Jersey, I have been following the case of a teacher, Viki Knox, who has been suspended for allegedly making anti-gay comments on her personal Facebook page. Click here for details on her alleged statement (I'm not going to restate the alleged words in this blog.)

Before I discuss my personal views on this issue, let me state that I am one of the faculty advisers for the Gay-Straight Alliance at the public high school where I teach. My concern about this case stems solely from the intersection it has with free speech issues, not an endorsement of her alleged statements.

In the wake of this story breaking I have heard many people make statements to the effect that "Teachers are held to a higher standard." And for that reason we ought not to voice our personal opinions in public fora (that's the plural of forum, by the way, I'm a Latin teacher). 

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Here are some of the ways this view has been publicly stated.

From the
Star-Ledger: "Hateful public comments from a teacher [emphasis my own] cannot be tolerated," wrote [John] Paragano, also a former Union Township Municipal Court judge. "She has a right to say it. But she does not have a right to keep her job after saying it."
From the
same article: The case raises broader questions about rights of teachers [emphasis my own] to speak freely in the age of social media.
A letter to the editor from a retired teacher: "the right of Ms. Knox to her private beliefs does not grant her the right to go public [emphasis my own]. All of the words and actions of a teacher serve as a great example to children."

In these statements there is the assertion that teachers may not possess the same constitutionally protected right to free speech that non-teachers have.

Let me therefore state, for the record and as a matter of legal reality. Yes, I do. I have the exact same right to free speech that you do. And I'm a teacher.

I did not surrender any of my constitutional rights when I became a teacher. And I am not held to a "higher standard." I am held to the same standard of conduct as everyone else. It's called the law.

And I wasn't surprised that the ACLU has injected some legal sanity into this case by again consistently siding with free speech, even free speech they hate.
From the Star-Ledger: "Although we do not agree with the sentiments expressed on Ms. Knox’s personal Facebook page, her comments are protected by the First Amendment," stated Ed Barocas, the group’s legal director. "The ACLU believes that the response to offensive speech is not the restriction of speech, but more speech."
Free Speech Hurts. I do not dismiss the possibility that someone could read what this teacher allegedly wrote and be hurt by it. But she has the right to say that, even out loud and on Facebook, in her private life. If she had ever expressed such opinions in the classroom, that would be an entirely different matter.
I'm a teacher. And on this blog I've made direct statements that some disagree forcefully with. For instance, I recently stated that I don't believe in a literal Adam and Eve. I understand that people who ascribe to a literal view of Creationism might be offended by that statement. And if their child is in my Latin class, perhaps they would then be uncomfortable with the notion of a liberal non-literalist biblical scholar teaching their child. But they needn't worry. Because I don't discuss my personal views on such matters in my Latin class.

But unless I want to worry that my free expression will get me fired, I will need to support the right of everyone to make personal views publicly.

Even if I don't like it...and if they're a teacher.