A Microphone or a Muzzle?

A Microphone or a Muzzle?

Diane Robertson

Should public school and public university teachers and coaches be allowed to speak up in city councils or post political or religious opinions on Facebook? Should they be allowed to lobby their state legislatures and testify during committee meetings about laws they feel passionate about? Should  free speech and the right to be involved in the democratic process be allowed to every American citizen no matter their career choice?

Some teachers and coaches over the last couple of years have found that their communities and employers don’t agree that they should have these same rights given to every other American citizen.

Most recently, a University of Nebraska assistant football coach, Ron Brown, attended an Omaha City Council hearing and testified against a proposed anti-discrimination ordinance that would give a special protected status to homosexual and transgendered people.  In his three minute testimony, Brown expressed his belief in the Bible and declared, “the real question I guess I have for you all is – what does God say?”

A member of the Lincoln Board of Education, Barbara Baier, wrote to the Administration of the University to request his dismissal due to his city council testimony. She cited the university-wide non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation. Baier believes Brown’s testimony at a city council creates an atmosphere hostile to gay student-athletes in his University job.

Fortunately for Brown, Osborne, the athletic director at the University, said Brown is within his rights to express his personal views, “I think it’s important that there be clarity with what you do in your capacity at the university and what you do as a private citizen.” Even then, Brown has declared, “To be fired for my faith would be a greater honor than to be fired because we didn’t win enough games.”

Others in the teaching profession have not been dealt with so kindly by their employers. Last fall, a teacher in New Jersey, Viki Knox, posted on her personal Facebook account her thoughts about homosexuality. Attorney John Paragano was alerted by a parent about the post and sent a copy to the Union Township school district arguing for her dismissal. Knox was put on paid administrative leave. In January, the Union Township school board announced that it had filed tenure charges against Viki Knox, beginning the lengthy process to terminate her employment—all because of what she wrote on her personal Facebook page.

Earlier in 2011, a high school teacher in Florida, Jerry Buell, made a similar “mistake” of posting his personal feelings about gay marriage onto his Facebook page. A former student filed a complaint stating that Buell was “dangerous to gay students.” The school board moved him to an administration position during an investigation. After a lot of support from the community, Buell was allowed back in the classroom, but not without a “list of directives he needs to follow to return to work”. Buell argued that he was following the constitution and his right to free speech.

If a teacher or a school official has an opposing opinion than that of a child, youth, or young adult that they work with, and expresses this opinion after work hours and not in an employment setting, does that make them “dangerous” to that child? Would one say the same thing about the store clerk or bank president—what about a pediatrician?

I would argue that the danger is in stripping the rights of free speech from certain individuals because of their job. Sure, parents can complain that they do not agree with the opinion of a teacher or coach. But declaring an opinion in a political setting or on a social media outlet, not associated with one’s employment, is the exercise of free speech guaranteed in the first amendment.  That guarantee should be allotted to all citizens including those who work in education.

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