Thursday, March 13, 2003
TEACHERS AND FREEDOM OF SPEECH: RECENT IRONIC SITUATIONS
A substitute music teacher at Black Elk Elementary School in Millard was apparently dismissed for violating district policy while chatting with students about the possibility of war in Iraq. She apparently told students that if the worst happens, Jesus Christ would save them if they believe in Him.
The fact that she was dismissed, while other full-time teachers are wearing and handing out anti-war buttons, participating in anti-war parades and rallies with their students, allowed to display pagan symbols in the classroom, teaching biological evolution as a fact, and otherwise clearly acting in conflict with and opposition to the religious and political beliefs of the students' families, with no sanctions, is certainly ironic under the circumstances.
The incident sparked lively commentary on local websites such as the KCRO Forum as citizens exchanged views on whether or not it was right for her to say what she said.
From the cheap seats, it looks as though she goofed. According to U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (kids shouldn't have been suspended for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War), it's clear that students have unlimited rights of free speech on topics such as religion, so long as their speech isn't disruptive and doesn't directly collide with the rights of others.
But teachers, while still possessing free-speech rights very similar to those of other adults in other types of workplaces, still must be viewed as "agents of the state," particularly when they are influencing younger, more impressionable students who are more or less a "captive audience." Public-school teachers shouldn't be paramoid about expressing themselves, and they can certainly answer religious questions posed by children, but they must not proselytize or make it possible for children to confuse what they say as their personal beliefs with the official, sanctioned policy of the school district.
A good way to have handled the situation might have been that good, old thing that a fellow named Socrates always did: answer a question with a question. If a child had a valid question and expressed some fear about the war, the teacher might turn it into a learning opportunity and ask all of the children in the class about what calms them in times of crisis. Then if a student were to name the name of Jesus and others were to share their beliefs, alike or different, it would have been OK.
For more on the important topic, see "Teachers' Rights in Public Education," a 2002 report from the Rutherford Institute and more good information from the American Center for Law and Justice.
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