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Stripping Teachers of Freedom of Speech

(For my related essay on how teachers are being hamstrung by court decisions, see "Rules for Schools: Dealing with Delinquents" in the Oct. 26 issue of The American.)

The latest reminder that freedom of speech for teachers in K-12 is an illusion came from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati on Oct. 21. In Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of the Tipp City Exempted Village School District, the court ruled that teachers cannot make their own curricular decisions.

The case came about when high school English teacher Shelley Evans-Marshall was fired after 500 parents demanded "decency and excellence" in the classroom. Marshall's sin was assigning books that were not on the approved list, including Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. The board denied that her dismissal had anything to do with her book selections. It maintained that Evans-Marshall was terminated because of "problems with communications and teamwork." The court said: "Only the school board has ultimate responsibility for what goes on in the classroom, legitimately giving it a say over what teachers may (or may not) teach in the classroom."

This is not the first time that freedom of speech for teachers has been undermined by the courts. On Oct. 1, 2007, in Mayer v. Monroe County Community School Corp., the U.S. Supreme Court denied a hearing to Deborah Mayer, who was fired after a parent complained about her remarks to her class. One of her students in her grades 4-6 class at Clear Creek Elementary School in Bloomington, Ind. on the eve of the Iraq war asked if she would participate in a peace rally. She replied: "I honk for peace." She also told her students during the same weekly current events discussion that "People ought to seek out peaceful solutions before going to war."

The Monroe County Community School Corp. denied that she was not rehired because she expressed an unpatriotic opinion about the war, maintaining instead that she was a bad teacher. It said that parents began complaining about her in Oct. 2002, long before her Jan. 10, 2003 remarks. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held that "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 system."

Both cases make it clear that teachers are essentially hired hands who are expected to toe the line on policies. In the past, teachers have won their cases only when they were able to show they were punished for violating policies that school officials either never explained to them or concocted after the fact.

Ironically, the U.S. Supreme Court has been more involved in upholding the free speech rights of students. In Tinker v. Des Moines School District, for example, the high court wrote in 1969 that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." (In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court modified its ruling in Morse v. Fredericks, aka "Bong Hits 4 Jesus.")

The latest court ruling couldn't have come at a worse time. Reformers are demanding that teachers turn out students who can think critically. But if teachers are threatened with the loss of their jobs for trying to reach this goal by the use of new ideas, then who is going to want to teach? Already teacher turnover is unacceptably high, with 50 percent of teachers leaving after the first five years. By penalizing teachers who strive for creativity, school boards exacerbate the situation. And yet we wonder why efforts to recruit teachers from the top ranks of colleges are falling short. If things are bad now, they are going to get worse in the years ahead because of our myopia.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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