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I was on the Ed Schultz show this morning talking about Obama's upcoming speech September 8th, to students across the country.

That the President of the United States is being censored by right-wing, neo-conservative parents is absurd but not surprising.  

Free speech at school was lost during the Bush administration.  Join me below as I discuss the legal ruling and why teachers must tread lightly as they decide what to do in this situation.

The Rec List!  Thanks guys, especially to diarist elmo who provided this link to the opinion in comments.  I, personally, can't wait to hear what Obama has to say to our kids.  

In 2003, before the war in Iraq began, I said four little words, "I honk for peace" that would change my life forever.  I was teaching the curriculum using Time for Kids magazine, the issue was about Iraq. I was required to teach that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (no one challenged that), and other facts about our history with Iraq.  We also read a tiny article about a peace demonstration being held in Washington, DC. When a student asked if I would ever march in a peace march, I answered honestly, saying that "I honk for peace" when I drive by the demonstrators with signs reading Honk for Peace.

A small group of zealous, right-wing, Bush-loving parents complained, called me unpatriotic and anti-Bush, demanded that I be fired, and I was.  I fought for my job and my right of free speech by suing the school district.  I  took my fight all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States which declined to hear it in October, 2007, thus affirming the lower court decision that teachers have no right of free speech at school.

Neither, it would seem, does the President.  

Teachers must walk on eggshells these days as they prepare to teach the curriculum.  One false statement and they could lose their jobs . . . and the NEA or AFT will not be there to support them.  So, teachers choosing to do an activity as innocuous as watching the President encourage their students to set goals, take responsibility for their own learning, and stay in school is risky business these days.  

There are two criteria a teacher must meet in free speech cases.  One is that she must be speaking on a matter of public concern.  Two is that she must be teaching the curriculum.  In my case, the school district first attempted to tell the court that the war in Iraq was not a matter of public concern. I'm not making this up. They also said that I was not teaching the curriculum when I honestly answered a students question by stating my opinion.  Then they said I had no rights under the Supreme Court ruling in Garcetti (2006) which states that government workers have no first amendment free speech rights when they are doing their jobs. Again, I'm not making this up.  Today, teachers in the 7th Circuit, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, have absolutely lost their right of free speech at school, but teachers across the country are at risk because circuit courts often pay attention to each others' rulings.

This is my concern for teachers today in the light of viewing President Obama's speech with their students: they can be fired for doing it if parents complain. I'm especially concerned about districts where the administration has left the decision up to the discretion of the teacher, in the Chicago area for example. Teachers there have no protection under the law if parents choose to make trouble, and it doesn't really matter what the facts are because Judge Easterbrooke of the 7th Circuit doesn't does let little things like facts, evidence, precedent, or the Constitution get in his way when making a decision.

From court records:

The first amendment does not entitle primary and secondary teachers, when conducting the education of captive audiences, to cover topics, or advocate viewpoints, that depart from the
curriculum adopted by the school.

(That term "captive audience" keeps popping up in the language of the reported parents who object to Obama's speech so I'm curious about how it has surfaced into the conversation.)  A project by a law intern writing about my case, MAYER V. MONROE: THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT SHEDS FREEDOM OF SPEECH AT THE CLASSROOM DOOR points to these facts:

Part of the rationale for this rule is that teachers can be powerful influences in students’ lives; the power to decide what students hear must rest in the hands of elected officials. The court concluded that Mayer presented “personal views to captive audiences against the instructions of elected officials.”  This comment is unusual because no elected official instructed Mayer that her comments were outside the curriculum until after she made them. In fact, since she was commenting on approved material, her comments were likely within the prescribed curriculum.

The court also decreed:

. . . a teacher's speech is a commodity that she sells to the school in exchange for a salary.

In other words, a teacher is merely a paid mouthpiece for the government . .  . but apparently only the right-wing part of it. I fear this is only the first of many such public instances in which students will be barred from hearing the truth at school.  Another diversion from getting real work accomplished . . . like health care for all.  If a student asks a teacher if she supports health care for all, and she answers honestly "yes," can she be fired for that, too?

If Sasha and Malia were attending public school in Chicago today and their teachers were prohibited from presenting their father's speech, they would not be able to hear it.  Inherent in the right to free speech is the freedom to hear.  Students still have free speech rights at school.  I suggest they use them.  If they want to hear the President, it is their right.  They should demand it!  They shouldn't let the right-wingers infringe upon their right to the education they deserve.

(To know more about my case,  go to Free Speech Nation.)

Originally posted to annie em on Fri Sep 04, 2009 at 01:26 PM PDT.

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