Education Opinion

No Free Speech for Guidance Counselors

By Walt Gardner — September 29, 2014 1 min read
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Reformers argue that tenure makes it extraordinarily difficult to fire teachers. But what about guidance counselors? Are they different? If the ruling by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals is upheld, the answer is yes (“ ‘It’s Her Fault': An Illinois Board Fires a Guidance Counselor For Self-Publishing a Sexually Explicit Advice Book on Adult Relations,” Teachers College Record, Sept. 18).

The facts of the case are notable. Bryan Craig, a tenured guidance counselor at Rich Central High School in a Chicago suburb, self-published an advice book about adult relationships. He used sexually explicit language and sexually provocative themes. He was fired because the school board asserted that the book caused “disruption and confusion” among the members of the community.

Craig sued, arguing that he was fired for engaging in constitutionally protected speech. But the court disagreed, emphasizing that because he was a guidance counselor, his position conferred on him “an inordinate amount of trust and authority.” As a result, he was obligated to “maintain a safe space for his students in order to ensure they remain willing to come to him for advice.”

What if Craig had self-published a book about politics instead of about sex? Would the school board have fired him? If the rationale is that he jeopardized his relationships with his students, then politics can have a similar effect. Yet I doubt the board would have taken such drastic action.

I cannot understand why guidance counselors deserve even less free-speech protection than classroom teachers. In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court in Pickering v. Board of Education made it clear that teachers have the right to speak out on issues of public importance. Why are guidance counselors different from classroom teachers in this regard?

The argument advanced is that they hold a more sensitive job since students go to them for personal advice, whereas students go to their teachers solely to learn subject matter. I think that’s an artificial distinction that fails to take into account the reality of high school. The No. 1 responsibility of guidance counselors is to be sure that their charges are on track for graduation. Of course, they often have to confront personal issues that may be in the way. But self-publishing a sexual advice book does not undermine the ability of guidance counselors to act professionally.

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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.