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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.

Originally posted to Ron Legro on Sat Jan 14, 2012 at 08:30 AM PST.

Also republished by Badger State Progressive.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Godwin's LAW!!!! (9+ / 0-)

    Once again, proving that the most "teachable" moments from the last century are not acceptable discussion points.


    One of these days, I'm gonna learn that I'm only really good at convincing people when I'm being a wiseass.

    by detroitmechworks on Sat Jan 14, 2012 at 08:34:43 AM PST

  •  Increasingly education--even highter education (12+ / 0-)

    is all about creating cogs in the machine. Some people will graduate from high school and go on to do menial jobs without the benefit of unions. Others will go to college, graduate, and spend the rest of their life in a cubicle, doing a menial job without benefit of unions. Others will go to prison, doing menial jobs as essentially slave labor in a system which has completely written off anyone who commits a crime as incapable of being rehabilitated.

    One percent will get rich.

    Welcome to America.

    Santorum: Man on Dog; Romney: Dog on Car.

    by commonmass on Sat Jan 14, 2012 at 08:41:32 AM PST

  •  It appears that the powers to be in that community (6+ / 0-)

    may be intent on proving that, though they are not incarnations of Hitler, they are indeed authoritarians who at the very least have fascist tendencies.

    A proud member of the Professional Left since 1967.

    by slatsg on Sat Jan 14, 2012 at 08:45:56 AM PST

  •  I'm not a lawyer but (8+ / 0-)

    I have a pretty good working knowledge of the precedents on free speech for public employees.

    These rights have been significantly eroded to the point where if he had said something like that in his class, the school district *might* have had a case for disciplinary action.

    But he made this statement in his capacity as a private citizen in a letter to his state legislator.

    So, I will be very surprised and extremely dismayed if the school district gets anywhere with this.

    •  they can discipline (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      a public opinion, iirc, if the employee is works in a public capacity and the speech was such that it could negatively impact the relationship between the government and the community it serves.  Dunno if you remember, but this was a legal test at issue in an opinion authored by Sotomayor on the second circuit that came up during her nomination hearings.  

      •  typo (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        "public opinion" should be "public employee," and the discipline can be for public or private speech.  In the Sotomayor vase, for example, the speech was letters mailed anonymously.  

        •  Sotomayor dissented. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          I think you mean Pappas v. Giuliani.

          I don't think there's a SCOTUS case, correct?

          It would be interesting to see what would happen if the SCOTUS takes up a case like this.  Some of the conservatives there are pretty absolutist about the First Amendment and may have agreed with Sotomayor.

          •  I don't think this case really applies (0+ / 0-)

            In the above case, it was a police officer who was sending  out racist letters. That's a little different from a poor choice of rhetoric in a letter to an elected official in your capacity as a private citizen.

            The conservatives on the court are not free speech absolutists-at least not when it comes to the rights of public employees. That is why they have persistently whittled away the precedents that protect speech when it is made in one's capacity as a public employee.

            Also, there's another precedent (can't think of the name right now) where a police dispatcher expressed pleasure over the fact the Ronald Reagan had been shot to her fellow employees. This was ruled to be accepted speech, though today, that ruling might not hold.

            But that's not the case here. Anyway, it will be interesting to see but I am pretty confident in what I said.

  •  Interesting to see how people here respond to this (13+ / 0-)

    I support a broad reading of the First Amendment, and I would not support government being able to punish a public school teacher for expressing an opinion away from school, on his or her own time.  

    Of course, I support that right whether I agree with, or detest, the content of the speech.  

    I certainly hope Dailykos members who support the First Amendment rights of the teacher here would also support First Amendment rights when the speech is speech they detest.  I admire the ACLU's position that they support the First Amendment, even when they disagree with the speech.  

    It will be easy for people to cite the First Amendment here, when they agree with the sentiments expressed by the teacher. However the real test of support for the First Amendment is whether you support the First Amendment when a teacher, away from school and on his/her own time, makes statements that you abhor.

    •  Interesting point (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Keep in mind that Koszarek's comments were in a private email which was made public by the recipient. The other teacher posted on a public forum, Facebook.

      Let me ask, if the teacher worked in a school with a large Jewish population and posted anti-semitic rants on Facebook, what would your opinion be regarding his rights?

      To use another example, my daughter-in-law works in a school with a large Latino population. Would it be acceptable for a teacher to post racist diatribes on Facebook where his/her students and their parents could see them?

      A proud member of the Professional Left since 1967.

      by slatsg on Sat Jan 14, 2012 at 09:41:08 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  "Acceptable" and "within the First Amendment" (4+ / 0-)

        are two different things.  I can find speech completely "unacceptable" by moral/ethical standards, and nonetheless recognize that it is protected by the First Amendment.  

        There is not legally much difference between an email -- which is direct to certain recipients but can be forwarded -- and Facebook, which is directed to a larger group (your "friends") but can be made public.  They are both, legally, statements made in your private capacity on your own private time.   (If you want to make the argument that Facebook postings more directly affected her students, do you know (1) what her privacy settings were, or (2) whether any students were her "friends"?)  At any rate, suppose the teacher sent a letter to the editor saying that she believed that homosexuality was destroying society, that gay marriage was abhorrent, against nature, and equivalent to bestiality -- all statements made by some on the right.  The same legal principles would apply -- the teacher either has First Amendment rights away from school, on his/her own time, or he/she doesn't.  

        Seems to me that, no matter how abhorrent the statements, the only way that statements made in one's private capacity, on one's own time, away from school, through the use of one's private computer (even if a larger group receive the statements) can be used as a basis for punishment by the government (even if the government is your employer) is (1) if they violate some terms of your employment contract; or (2) if the government can demonstrate that the statements affect that person's performance as an employee -- then the performance as an employee can serve as basis for disciplinary treatment.  

        And I say that no matter how abhorrent I find the speech.   See my comments in that other diary that I linked to.  

        My point is that some people are, in a word, hypocritical -- they will be quick to find First Amendment rights when they support the speech, quick to find the First Amendment does not apply when they detest the speech.  Once standard applies to all.  

  •  Two points: (10+ / 0-)

    our legislators are particularly sensitive to critical comments from the populace, because they are in denial about the fact that the people rule.  If the rep is going to be insubordinate, he might just go all the way and go on the offense in hopes of beating the rabble back.

    Unions are anathema because, although they are corporate entities like municipalities and states, they can claim to represent the interests of people who aren't supposed to have a say. Legislators see unions as both competitors and traitors.  Legislators and the officers of commercial private corporations are sympatico.  Both have an interest in keeping the "beast" at bay.

    Also, the restrictions placed on public officials by the various constitutions (the prohibition against interfering with speech is addressed to agents of government) are doubly onerous because they keep reminding them of the subordinate position.  So, at a minimum, they think these same restrictions should be imposed on anyone else who's not earned the freedom by being obedient.

    The teacher's "crime" was being disobedient on his own time AND presuming to instruct the legislator.  

    The thing about the culture of obedience is that coerced obedience is abusive and people who put up with it want to get their own back by making someone else behave, as well.  That's how authoritarianism spreads.  As we know from domestic abuse situations, it's quite common for victims to turn on someone other than the abuser.

    People to Wall Street: "LET OUR MONEY GO"

    by hannah on Sat Jan 14, 2012 at 08:51:42 AM PST

  •  After my picture was on the cover of the (3+ / 0-)

    OEA magazine (I didn't know it was until the magazine was sent out) during a rally against SB5, I was called in to a meeting (over the summer) with admins and told I was a "trouble maker". In September I was given 2 written reprimands for violating codes of conduct (both were total b.s.) after having been "under investigation". My union rep, who is the local pres, stood with the admins and I was told my attitude was poor and that was why "so many people didn't like me". I have seen a labor lawyer, who told me I didn't have anything to worry about since the only repercussion I received was to be "written up". So, they get to "witch hunt" me and harass me, the union abandons me  and I am supposed to be thankful because "all" that happened was a write-up.  

    "There must be more to life than having everything" -Maurice Sendak

    by lilypew on Sat Jan 14, 2012 at 09:12:54 AM PST

    •  They can use "write-ups" against you later (4+ / 0-)

      Usually those things you can't defend yourself against can be used as evidence later for something you can, theoretically, defend yourself against.  But you can't challenge those "write-ups" later.

      A lot of unions have been horribly beaten down and turned into what used to be called a sweetheart union, a company tool.  The McCarthy era drove out a lot of the stronger populists in the movement, and intimidated the rest, so they often just lecture you on "management rights."

    •  I understand (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      lilypew, Samer, peptabysmal, Bluefin

      In my work, I've heard a number of incidents that ran along similar lines. There are rules of law, and civil service protections, and voter rights and labor rights and more, but as we move along these more and more are paid only lip service by the lawmakers and executives. At some point, this will lead to a hollow democracy, if we aren't already dangerously close to being there. On another front, it's the recurring idea that "if you have nothing to hide" you shouldn't worry about law enforcement agencies or the miiltary snooping on you. Of course, that's not the point at all.

  •  The school board will lose (5+ / 0-)

    if they pursue disciplinary action.

    The newspaper reported that the school district is considering disciplinary action against Koszarek

    They will hear from attorneys from the WEAC, if they have not already, and then, there's the ACLU.

    My guess is, after they are done considering, they will let the matter drop.

  •  So much for... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FlamingoGrrl, ruleoflaw, Bluefin

    I've always been annoyed by the blithe advice to "write your Congressman" or "write your state legislator" as a synonym for political action.
      Here's a guy who did the most basic thing, communicating his opinions to his representative, and look what happened.

  •  Two Things (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Samer, FlamingoGrrl, ruleoflaw

    This is a fight. And all of us are in it.  And one of the ways to help win the fight is to try to communicate in ways that don't give the other side an opening.  Most people don't equate loss of union rights on its own to Naziism. Going this route makes it seem like an  unionists are out of touch.  The rule I follow when talking about this stuff is "no hitler, ever."  You can make the point that Pridemore has chosen to take the side with the 1% and their tax breaks against protecting and rebuilding paths to the middle class for all of us in any number of other ways.

    Second, there are 29 million references on the Internet to Hitler.  The Slinger School Adminstration ought to go through each of them and make sure that there isn't anyone else who they have power over who might have used the word infelicitously in the past.  

    I think Don Pridemore is smarting because One Wisconsin Now previously did not that actual Neo Nazis and Don Pridemore both support Arizona's ALEC anti immigration legislation.

    •  To be clear (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      historys mysteries, Samer, ruleoflaw

      The school adminstration has no business policing this teacher's speech, and the second paragraph there was designed to point out the absurdity of it.

    •  One of the most basic and early actions taken by (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      every authoritarian, totalitarian regime ever is to cripple, co-opt or destroy unions of any kind, from medieval serf groups and guilds to modern trade and professional associations.
      Kings and emperors, usurpers,  Hitler, Stalin and all in between have done it.
      The other early consolidation of power involves seizing and controlling all forms of communications, finance, taxing, public safety and press.

      It's just Overthrow and Dictate 101. Of late much of US government and society is riddled with it, with Wisconsin now a prime example (that fortunately is being countered by a massive resistance).
       I fail to see any problem with invoking Godwin when appropriate, call a spade a spade FGS.

      "Double, double, toile and trouble; Fire burne, and Cauldron bubble... By the pricking of my Thumbes, Something wicked this way comes": Republicans Willkommen auf das Vierte Reich! Sie Angelegenheit nicht mehr.

      by Bluefin on Sat Jan 14, 2012 at 04:10:53 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I live 3 miles from this school in Washington (9+ / 0-)

    county and read this earlier today in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

    My immediate reaction was to break out in a cold sweat...because this teacher is quite correct in his assessment of the attitudes of a large majority of citizens in this very red rural area.

    Thanks for your post, rlegro. I'm so glad this is getting some exposure!

    Dropping out is not an option!

    by verdeo on Sat Jan 14, 2012 at 09:56:07 AM PST

  •  Yes, thanks for the diary. I read this via FB (8+ / 0-)

    this morning. My first thought was to wince at the Hitler reference. It is not that his reference isn't valid, it is that people will not see beyond the rhetoric because it is not only inflammatory, it is cliche. Find some other way to say it.

    That said (we all have lapses of creative expression) those admins need to stand by their teacher's rights to self-expression in off-school hours. Wouldn't it be refreshing to see teachers treated with dignity, supported by admins, and given the benefit of the doubt by the community that they work in?

    (Dreaming of Finland?)

  •  Good old "Free Speech Zones" (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    OldDragon, ruleoflaw

    How the mighty have fallen.

    Hopefully we can "get up."

    Effective activism requires Activists -- Effecting radical change demands Radicals

    by Anthony Page aka SecondComing on Sat Jan 14, 2012 at 12:14:20 PM PST

  •  Tipped, recced and republished to (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I started with nothing and still have most of it left. - Seasick Steve

    by ruleoflaw on Sat Jan 14, 2012 at 01:28:20 PM PST

  •  Oh the 1977 my first WI teaching (4+ / 0-)

    job was in a rural area of central Wisconsin.  A young teacher in a neighboring district lost her job the year before because she bought a new car from her home-town dealer instead of the local dealer who happened to be on the school board.

    THAT is where we are headed, again...public employees without a union become second class citizens who are forced to forfeit the rights that other employees LEGALLY have the right to.  I WILL NOT take the imposition of second-class citizenship being forced on me without fighting back.  

    It is not the fault of public employees that many private sector employees are too afraid to risk fighting for the protection and benefits of unionism!

  •  Are there any grounds for suing Rep. Pridemore for (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    peptabysmal, Bluefin, verdeo, ruleoflaw

    damages since this was private correspondence to him that he released for political gain?

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