28 March 2006
Back in 1950, my wife was fourteen and in the eighth grade. The subject was History or Current Events. The Cold War was in full flower and Joe McCarthy was in his ascendency. She had been told that Communism was evil and she was scared to death of Stalin, as she and the world had heard many tales of his murdering or imprisoning millions of his own people. The teacher was holding forth on the evils of Communism when Adrienne asked, What is Communism?
The teacher hushed the class, went to the intercom and called the Principals Office. Then she told Adrienne to go to the Principals Office.
What for, she asked?
When she got to the office, she was told to wait, that the principal had called her mother to come and get her and take her home. When she arrived, Adrienne and her Mom were taken into the principals office and Adrienne and her Mom were told she must never ask that question again. She told her that answering that question could get the teacher fired and the school in trouble. All Adrienne needed to know was that communism was evil and that we had to hate it and fight it. Talking about communism apparently made you a Pinko.
Eventually, McCarthy and HUAC overreached themselves and passed into history. People were again free to discuss political systems and philosophy without being pilloried. People remembered the Bill of Rights and freedom of speech.
Now, an article by Matthew Rothschild in the Progressive Magazine http://www.progressive.org/ published on Monday, March 27, 2006 by the Progressive caught my eye.
Judge Rules Teachers Have No Free Speech Rights in Class
Deb Mayer was a teacher of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders at Clear Creek Elementary School in Bloomington, Indiana, during the 2002-2003 school year.
On January 10, 2003, she was leading a class discussion on an issue of Time for KidsTime magazines school-age version, which the class usually discussed on Fridays and which is part of Clear Creeks approved curriculum.
There were several articles in the magazine that discussed topics relating to the imminent war against Iraq, and one that mentioned a peace march.
According to Mayer, a student asked her if she would ever participate in such a march.
And Mayer said, When I drive past the courthouse square and the demonstrators are picketing, I honk my horn for peace because their signs say, Honk for peace. She added that she thought it was important for people to seek out peaceful solutions to problems before going to war and that we train kids to be mediators on the playground so that they can seek out peaceful solutions to their own problems.
Mayer claims in a pending federal lawsuit that the school chilled her First Amendment rights because of this one conversation in class, which she says took all of about five minutes, and that the school district refused to renew her contract because of it. (The quotes above are taken from court documents.)
According to the records, apparently a student mentioned the conversation to a parent, who complained to the school that her teacher had advocated peace. She was told never to discuss the war, or peace in her classroom again.
At the end of that day, Principal Rogers circulated a memo, entitled Peace at Clear Creek, that said: We absolutely do not, as a school, promote any particular view on foreign policy related to the situation in Iraq. And she cancelled the annual peace month that the school had been holding.
The case has now been tried with the above verdict. The ostensible reason for her termination was a poor work evaluation, though the evaluation before the incident had been effusive in its praise of her as a teacher. The poor evaluation was written and entered into the court records two years later, long after her dismissal.
On March 10, Judge Sarah Evans Barker dismissed Mayers case, granting summary judgment to the defendants.
The judge said the school district was within its rights to terminate Mayer because of various complaints it received from parents about her teaching performance.
But beyond that, Judge Barker ruled that teachers, including Ms. Mayer, do not have a right under the First Amendment to express their opinions with their students during the instructional period.
The judge ruled that school officials are free to adopt regulations prohibiting classroom discussion of the war, and that the fact that Ms. Mayers January 10, 2003, comments were made prior to any prohibitions by school officials does not establish that she had a First Amendment right to make those comments in the first place. The judge also implied that Mayer, by making her comments, was attempting to arrogate control of the curricula.
And the judge gave enormous leeway to school districts to limit teachers speech in the classroom.
Whatever the school board adopts as policy regarding what teachers are permitted to express in terms of their opinions on current events during the instructional period, that policy controls, and there is no First Amendment right permitting teachers to do otherwise, Judge Barker wrote.