Today's lesson in free speech comes to you courtesy of Slinger (Wisconsin) High School, where free speech apparently is sometimes removed to one of those distant, obscure and very narrow free-speech zones. It's about a veteran public school teacher facing school disciplinary action for openly expressing his views on politics on his own time.
But before we detail that latest assault on public discourse, a little history from my own past: Back in the '60s, I wrote an opinion column for my high school newspaper about morale problems at the badly overcrowded school I attended. When it was published, the principal -- a former Marine drill instructor -- summoned me to his office and sternly suggested that I'd damaged the school's reputation and that a make-up column praising our school spirit would be a very good idea.
Well, I never wrote that make-up column, but instead decided I would report the news and find truth as best I could. And spent years as a journalist attempting to do just that.
A few years after my own run-in, a bunch of seniors at my alma mater decided to protest a stupid new school policy by arranging a one-hour sit-in outside the school building during class hours. The principal (a new guy) instructed teachers to hold pop quizzes that hour and fail anyone who didn't take their tests. The sit-in went on, and as a result of the Fs, a number of bright, college-bound students weren't allowed to graduate that semester, wrecking their post-secondary plans. A teach-in turned into a teach-you-upstarts-a-lesson.
The lesson both times: Shut up and keep your nose to the wheel. Open debate and free speech are ideals to be studied in the abstract, not rights to be put into actual use. The underlying message from our local officialdom was that freedom is great in theory, but dangerous in practice, and that they would be the judges of just how dangerous.
Jump to the present, where a Slinger High social studies teacher is in hot water because he wrote a critical letter to his state legislator in which -- horrors! -- he made an allusion to Hitler.
John Koszarek, who's taught for three decades in the Slinger district, wrote the apparently controversial email from his home computer to State Rep. Don Pridemore (R-Hartford). He was responding to a legislative newsletter in which Pridemore wrote that public school districts had benefited from budget "tools" that Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators passed last year. Walker-led measures gutted collective bargaining, imposed new costs on unions and public employees, and stripped well over a billion dollars in state aids to public school districts.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the details in a news story today, accompanied by an egregiously large headline for such a small dust-up:
Koszarek identified himself in the email as a "proud WEAC Board member,
Slinger teachers' negotiator and Wisconsin citizen." WEAC is the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union, which bitterly opposed the state legislation, known as Act 10, and Koszarek took exception to Pridemore's analysis of its benefits.
"Of course you are in Washington County where Hitler would have defeated Reagan had he the 'R' in front of his name on the ballot," Koszarek said in the email ... .
Pridemore promptly made the letter public. Whereupon, Slinger School District officials began giving Koszarek grief, suggesting that he'd insulted Slinger residents. Under pressure, Koszarek sent a second message to Pridemore apologizing for the reference to Hitler but adding, "I was right in saying that Washington County automatically votes for Republicans no matter the quality of the candidate... ."
The newspaper reported that the school district is considering disciplinary action against Koszarek, even though Koszarek wrote the messages to Pridemore on his own time, from his home computer.
Clearly, Koszarek's mistake was using Hitler as an example, rather than, say, Genghis Khan. In any case, even stipulating that using Nazi references is perhaps impolite and politically incorrect, is there a public school principal or administrator somewhere who would at least admit that hyperbole is actually a tool used in some of the finest examples of American English? Did anyone think Koszarek actually believed that Slinger School District voters would have elected Hitler?
As in the case of my two anecdotes from the sixties, this latest incident ought in an educational context to be seen as a very teachable moment. Instead, it's been turned into a political football, with an employer seeking to punish an employee for freely exercising his First Amendment right to a personal opinion, off the job site, on his own time, with his own resources, and under his own name. To imagine he can be disciplined as a result is the one true instance in this mess that shades toward fascism.
Ironically, union contract agreements often contain formal grievance procedures -- procedures that will vanish without replacement when the contract terms expire, thanks to Walker's anti-union law. Any disciplinary action under such procedures might very well result in the filing of a formal labor grievance on the teacher's behalf. But without contracts, there are no such grievance procedures. The new world order in public employment, at least in Walker's Wisconsin: Just shut up and do your job. Welcome to an antediluvian era in American labor relations.
One thing we know: Some Wisconsin Republican legislators are thin-skinned in the extreme and do not like public school teachers who belong to labor unions. Likewise for some school officials. But only people in authority are allowed to have thin skins. The rest of us are supposed to have thick skins, and to simply take it from the antediluvians. But that apparently is unrelated to the way Adolph Hitler and his authoritarian regime expected the entire world to take it.