Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Do Teachers Have Free Speech?

I guess the underlying question is does anyone really have 'Free Speech'? Before answering, I want to tell you a story of sorts.

When I was in the USAF, we had what we called 'Free Speech with limitations'. It sounds weird, but think about it. According to the precepts of free speech I should be able to tell my commander to 'pound sand'. The reality is that sure I could do so, but I had to be willing to face the consequences -- which could have included jail time, discharge, fines . . .. So in reality I did not have free speech as a member of the US Military. And it made perfect sense to me -- and still does. While the idea of free speech is fine, you always have to be willing to accept the consequences. Even in the civilian world, you aren't allowed to walk into a theater and yell 'Fire!'. Oh you can do it, but there better be a fire or the consequences of the ensuing panic will fall heavily on your shoulders.

So let's take this argument back to teachers. Do teachers have free speech? Well outside of the classroom they have the same free speech we all share. But I am talking inside the classroom? Do they?

According to John Freshwater, the Mt Vernon Teacher who is central to a long running trial in which he was fired for a variety of things, including teaching Creationism in violation of the district standards. One of his points was that the district’s restrictions on his classroom behavior violated his free speech rights. So at a time when his trial(s) are winding down, the question remains, does a teacher in the performance of their duties have free speech?

Well as reported on one of my favorite blogs, Panda's Thumb, the answer is No! According to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals:

"The appellate panel in Cincinnati upheld a lower court’s ruling for the Tipp
City [Ohio] Exempted Village School District, writing that the right to free
speech “does not extend to the in-class speech of teachers in primary and
secondary schools made ‘pursuant to’ their official duties.”"
This ruling and the 'free speech with limitations' makes perfect sense to me. Teachers in primary and secondary schools face an audience who has not learned the detail about any subject to understand enough to actually filter out inappropriate materials. As a result, the impressionable nature of students at that level mean the teachers should not be given free reign to teach anything they want.

This is why there are standards, and why teachers should be held to them -- regardless of any other beliefs or opinions. Noted in the ruling itself
"Supreme Court's 2006 ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos, which states that when
government employees speak "pursuant to their official duties," they are "not
speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes."

Again, this makes perfect sense to me. Outside of the classroom a teacher has the same freedom of speech as any other citizen of the US. But inside that classroom, in pursuant to their official duties, a teacher does not and should not! And if they try and assert that they do, they should be willing to accept the consequences of their actions. In Mr. Freshman's case, getting fired.

There was a little aside at the end of the ruling:
"The 6th Circuit also ruled that the "academic freedom" concept does not protect
curricular speech at the high-school level, because the notion was conceived and
applied in universities to protect teachers who are also researchers or
This one makes me a little concerned. I've discussed 'Academic Freedom' many times in here and I believe that High School teachers should have the same rights as college professors to introduce controversial material -- as long as such material is within the curriculum guidelines set by the school boards. The way this is worded seems to remove that arrow from high school teachers quiver and can be misused to avoid presenting materials simply based on the fact they are controversial. Climate change and Creationism comes to mind. Yes, they are controversial subjects, but Climate Change should be part of every Earth Science class today. Unlike Creationism, which while socially and politically controversial, is not a scientific subject and should not be protected by academic freedom policies at any level. This little addition to the ruling might need a little more thought. Any ideas?


  1. Hiya Ted -

    I have made some major changes to my blog, chief among them moving it to its own domain. The URL is if you wish to update your blog list. Thanks!


  2. Teachers should be free speech. I'm not against creationism being taught as an opposing view to evolution because both sides need to be presented fairly. Evolution, contrary to most evolutionists’ opinions is not fact but theory. Students need to understand both views, debate it and come to their own conclusions. With that said, this teacher went a little far and should be removed, not for teaching creationism but for burning crosses into a couple of his students.

  3. Clay,
    I disagree for several reasons. First of all Creationism should not be presented in science class, except maybe as a historical perspective, like Alchemy before Chemistry. Since Creationism is not a scientific concept, covering it as if it was the equal of science is the wrong idea. If we did that then why aren't we presenting EVERY version of Creationism from all the worlds religions? And also why are we not presenting Phrenology, Astrology, and Numerology as different views of Pschiatry, Astronomy, and Mathematics? They are not simply two views, but one is science the other is a specific religious view.

    As for letting students come to the own conclusions, are you kidding? Do we do that for English, Math, Social Studies, Geography, or any subject? Of course not. We need to teach students the subject matter they are going to need in the future. Science should be presented in science class, not religion. Your apparent tactic is just that, a transparent tactic to have your relgious beliefs presented. If you want Creationism, or it's little brother Intelligent Design covered, then teach it in a Philosophy class, or even a Sociology class, but not as if it was science. That would be a disservice to the students.

    As for Freshwater? Yes, he was dismissed for several reasons, including burning crosses in student arms. He also lied to investigators and his attorny lied to the judge during one of the several court cases. He does deserve to be fired for a number of reasons. My post was only concerning one topic. I had a few others on John Freshwater, and if you want to see more of a Freshwater vs et al, head over the Panda's Thumb (Link is on my page).


  4. Clay wrote: "Evolution, contrary to most evolutionists’ opinions is not fact but theory."

    Oh dear... At least Ted clears that brain-fart up with his next comment.

    I'm still amazed whenever a creationist trots out that "just a theory" crap... they really do refuse to learn eh?!