A Teacher Was Suspended for Posting a Video of Herself Pole Dancing. But What Are Her Rights?
Kandice Mason, a 6th grade teacher in Hoke County public schools who moonlights as a pole-dancing fitness instructor, was suspended on Aug. 16 due to violations of the county's social media policy and the state department of education's ethics policy for educators, said Donna Thomas, a spokeswoman for the district.
The district policy states that as role models for students, "employees are responsible for their public conduct even when they are not performing their job duties as employees of the school system." The policy also prohibits posting "indecent" photos or graphics. Thomas would not confirm which of Mason's posts violated the policy.
Mason, a veteran teacher who would have started her first year in Hoke County this month, said dance is her outlet for self-expression and a good form of exercise. "I've never felt ashamed of pole dancing," she told WTVD-TV, an ABC affiliate in North Carolina. "It's just an art for me. I just don't see it as negative." (Pole dancing has gained more mainstream appeal in recent years, as fitness studios have started to offer classes—the sport is even making a bid for the Olympics.)
Mason's story has sparked outrage from some teachers, who say that educators shouldn't be penalized for legal activities that they participate in off the clock, and that private activity on social media doesn't have any bearing on job performance.
But as years of similar incidents have shown, teachers have faced professional consequences for posting about their personal lives on social media—even when their activity doesn't have anything to do with their school or their students.
A teacher in Florida was asked to resign in 2013 after her principal saw photos online of her posing in a bikini. And in 2011, a teacher from Winder, Ga., was asked to resign after posting pictures of herself drinking beer on vacation in Europe.
So, what rights do teachers have when it comes to their online profiles?
When teachers are posting on social media in their capacity as a private citizen, they have First Amendment protection for any speech on a matter of public concern, said Mary-Rose Papandrea, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law who studies the First Amendment rights of public employees.
That means that if teachers want to post about their opinions on political debates or other public issues on Twitter or Facebook, their school districts aren't legally allowed to fire them for expressing their views.
See also: Using 'Social Media Wisely' in Education
There's one exception to this rule: Even speech on issues of public concern can be subject to what's called a "balancing test." If the views expressed in a teacher's social media posts could interfere with her ability to do her job, or cause harm to students or staff, they might not be constitutionally protected.
A good example, said Papandrea, is an incident from New Jersey where a high school teacher's license was suspended after she posted anti-gay comments to her personal Facebook page.
"Those kinds of statements made in private time reveal private prejudices that may manifest in the classroom," Papandrea said.
The school district could argue that holding these opinions demonstrates their employee doesn't have the qualifications to be a teacher, because they might not be supportive of all students, she said.
If teachers' posts are purely personal—not related to a broader public interest—their speech isn't protected, said Papandrea.
"The pole dancing and the beer drinking—they aren't matters of public concern," she said. Districts are within their power to fire teachers for participating in these activities and posting about them on social meda—regardless of whether the posts were shared on public pages or originally intended for a smaller audience, she said.
It can be difficult to determine what counts as inappropriate behavior when district policies don't list specifics, said Papandrea. Policies like these give "the government too much power to decide what is permissible and not permissible," she said. "What you think is appropriate behavior for a role model, the person next to you might disagree."
Her advice for school districts: "Give adequate guidance to the teachers so that they're aware on what they should and shouldn't do," and be as specific as possible.
Photo: A still image taken from video provided by WTVD-TV of Kandice Mason during an interview in Raeford, N.C. Mason, a middle school teacher who moonlights as a pole-dance instructor, has been suspended by a North Carolina school district. —WTVD-TV via AP