Education Opinion

Free Speech in K-12 Is a Myth

By Walt Gardner — January 11, 2016 2 min read
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Although teachers possess freedom of speech outside the classroom, once they step inside the classroom in front of students, they are throttled. The latest example involved Jeena Lee-Walker, an English teacher in New York City’s High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry (“NYC high school teacher claims she was fired for Central Park Five lessons that administrators feared would create ‘riots,’ ” New York Daily News, Jan. 8).

Lee-Walker created a lesson plan about the exoneration of five black and Hispanic teens after they had spent several years in prison for the rape of a white jogger in Central Park. She was told to soften her approach in order to avoid riling up her students. When she failed to do enough in the eyes of her supervisors, she was charged with insubordination and given a series of bad performance reviews over the next 18 months that finally led to her dismissal. She had been teaching in the city’s public schools for six years and had been at the high school for two years.

Lee-Walker sued in federal court claiming that her firing was retaliation for exercising her First Amendment right to discuss the case and that it violated the city’s contract with the teachers’ union because she was not given the required 60-days notice. What happened to Lee-Walker should serve as evidence that teachers’ unions are not nearly as powerful as believed and that free speech for teachers does not exist in K-12. Let me take each point separately.

If the United Federation of Teachers that represents teachers in the nation’s largest school system had such great clout, Lee-Walker would not have been fired. At worst, she would have received a reprimand. A year ago this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo lambasted the union for being more interested in its members’ rights than in students’ needs (“Andrew Cuomo rips teacher unions as selfish ‘industry’ more interested in members’ rights than student needs,” New York Daily News, Jan. 23, 2015). But Lee-Walker’s lessons engaged her students. Isn’t that what a lesson is supposed to do? Moreover, it’s ironic that the incident occurred at a high school with a name proudly proclaiming “Inquiry.”

But what is more disturbing in my opinion is that teachers in K-12 do not possess the same freedom of speech that the U.S. Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District accorded students. In 2010, the United States Court of Appeals ruled in Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of the Tipp City Exempted Village School District that public school teachers are employees, whose speech is hired by the board of education. They do not have the right to select books and methods of instruction free of interference from the board. Academic freedom does not apply to in-class speech at their level. It is reserved for university researchers or scholars.

Since that is the case, I wonder why any teacher would try to deviate from the prescribed curriculum? Doing so places their job in jeopardy, particularly when their unions won’t fight for them. As pressure builds to standardize the curriculum nationwide and the power of unions wanes, it takes either great courage or incredible stupidity for teachers to challenge the trend. New teachers will soon realize just how precarious their jobs are.

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.