July 16, 2010

Why Do We Deny Teachers Basic Constitutional Rights?

free_speech_cartoon.jpgWe in the U.S. enjoy many rights, one of the most important of which involves the right to free expression. As long as we do not incite violence or encourage others to engage in serious criminal acts, we are free to write what we wish and to speak our minds. Well, not exactly. You may remember how a middle-school teacher in North Carolina was suspended simply for complaining about some unnamed Christian students on her personal Facebook page. Despite the fact that the school district had no policy on social networking sites, they saw fit to punish this teacher merely for expressing herself.

Sadly, there has been yet another one of these cases, this time involving a private school in Villanova. Teacher Elizabeth Collins has long maintained a personal blog, but she's been fired for something as trivial as sharing her thoughts about an unnamed student's class presentation.

If you see a pattern beginning to develop, you are not alone. But to fully appreciate what is at stake here, we need to dig a bit deeper. According to Philly.com,
Collins says her posts never identify her school or anyone from it, though she does give her name and occupation. That day she wrote about a recent classroom assignment in which each student was to give a speech that advocated a point of view but did so in a conciliatory manner. She had told her students to use Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address as a model, she wrote.

"One thing I told my students is not to gloat, not to strike a hostile tone in their speeches," she wrote on prettyfreaky.blogspot.com. "Then, of course, I heard a speech that did both of those things."

Collins added that she felt "annoyance" because she disagreed with the politics of the speech and "dismay" that her message about the right tone was not getting through.
You can find the post in question here (Update: it appears that the post has been removed).

Ms. Collins was fired after the parents of the unnamed student complained to the school about her blog post. While they acknowledged that she never identified their child, this did not stop them from labeling it an "attack on a child." Ms. Collins says that the post dealt with teaching methods and that she was fired for expressing her political views.

According to Philly.com, the Pennsylvania State Education Association's website advises teachers not blog about their "job duties, colleagues, supervisors, or students." So much for free expression.

Much of the Philly.com article focuses on private schools, and this makes sense given that Ms. Collins was fired from a private school. However, I can tell you that teachers at public schools are not immune from this sort of thing. And believe it or not, neither are faculty at public universities.