Education Opinion

Teachers Speak Out at Their Own Peril

By Walt Gardner — October 28, 2011 2 min read
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The latest blow to freedom of speech for teachers occurred at Occupy Los Angeles when a substitute teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District made an anti-Semitic remark and was subsequently fired by the district’s superintendent. According to the Los Angeles Times, Patricia McAllister said in a taped interview with Reason TV that “The Zionist Jews who are running these big banks and the Federal Reserve ... need to be run out of this country” (“Free speech -- within limits,” editorial, Oct. 20).

Although McAllister wasn’t at work when she spoke and stressed that she was not speaking as a representative of the LAUSD, neither fact mattered. The Times argued that she no longer could effectively serve as a teacher because she was working with a “captive audience of vulnerable children.” The editorial went on to support the superintendent’s decision.

Until this incident, I thought the free speech line for teachers had been clearly drawn in the sand. What they said in class was not protected because the courts had ruled that teachers were employees and had to follow established policies. However, what they said out of class was protected. Apparently, that is not the case. Teachers lose their free speech rights no matter where they utter their words. (I want to emphasize that I was appalled by McAllister’s reprehensible remarks even though they were not said in front of students nor while she was working.)

At about the same time, The New York Times reported on Oct. 19 that a teacher at a private school in New York City was fired for what he said in class (“At Fieldston School, Division Over the Dismissal of a Popular but Polarizing Teacher”). According to the news article, Barry Sirmon “joked” with two black students by saying, “I hope I’ll be able to tell you apart.” According to the Times, nearly 350 of the 592 students at the school signed a petition to have Sirmon reinstated, and the union maintained that his firing was done without due process.

There are several differences between the McAllister and Sirmon firings. First, McAllister made her comment off campus as a citizen, while Sirmon made his in the classroom in his role as a teacher. Second, McAllister taught in a public school, while Sirmon taught in a private school. Finally, McAllister spoke in earnest, while Sirmon apparently spoke in jest, albeit insensitively.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from these two incidents, it’s that teachers in K-12 need to be eternally vigilant in what they say. They cannot invoke their right of freedom of speech as a defense and expect to prevail.

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.