Classroom Technology

Teachers, Politics, and Social Media: A Volatile Mix

By Madeline Will — March 17, 2020 9 min read
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In an increasingly divisive political climate, a teacher might think twice before tweeting or posting other social media takes on hot-button issues.

Legally, teachers have the right to talk about politics or other controversial topics on social media, and many do. Teachers say they don’t want to be restricted from sharing their opinions, and some say that teaching itself is inherently political. After all, many policies and campaign-trail promises directly affect teachers’ working—and personal—lives.

"[Teachers] have a right to their political opinions, and they have a right to engage in political speech,” said David Hudson, Jr., a law professor at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., and a First Amendment Fellow for the nonpartisan Freedom Forum Institute. “Political speech is the core expression that the First Amendment was designed to protect.”

Even so, many teachers do shy away from sharing political opinions on Twitter or Facebook for a range of reasons: They want to preserve their objectivity in front of their students. They don’t want to hurt their relationships with parents, students, or colleagues who might have different beliefs than they do. They worry about professional repercussions, especially when posting from an account that they use for work-related reasons.

And, on a not-infrequent basis, headlines pop up where a teacher is disciplined for something he or she said online.

“The type of online speech that most gets public school teachers in trouble is speech that is very negative about their students, fellow teachers, or principals,” Hudson said. “The courts will find even if it does touch on a matter of public concern, it’s very disruptive to the workplace.”

Texas high school English teacher Georgia Clark was fired last June after sending a series of tweets directed to President Donald Trump’s Twitter account, asking him to “remove the illegals from Fort Worth” and saying that her school district was “loaded” with and her high school had been “taken over by” undocumented students from Mexico. Clark later said she thought her tweets were private messages to Trump.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath ruled in November that Clark should either be reinstated with back pay, or receive one year’s salary in lieu of getting her job back. A report from an independent examiner had recommended that Clark be reinstated, saying that her tweets “are statements of a citizen on a matter of public concern protected by the United States Constitution and do not contravene or impair policies or proper performance of the district’s functions.”

The Fort Worth school district has challenged the education agency’s decision in a case that’s currently waiting to be heard by a district court.

“We stand by our decision because we firmly believe this is in the best interests of all students,” Superintendent Kent P. Scribner says in a statement. More than 60 percent of students in the district are Hispanic.

Meanwhile, a high school teacher in Milwaukee was placed on leave last month for a tweet about conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh’s advanced-stage cancer diagnosis. Travis Sarandos, who teaches creative writing and journalism, tweeted “rush limbaugh absolutely should have to suffer from cancer. it’s awesome that he’s dying, and hopefully it is as quick as it is painful.”

A spokeswoman for the district said Sarandos is still on leave pending further investigation.

As the presidential campaign escalates and the news of the day becomes increasingly partisan, teachers have to ask themselves: Where should they draw the line when it comes to posting about politics online?

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of a public school teacher who was fired for publishing a letter to the editor that criticized the school board’s allocation of funds between educational and athletic programs. The decision in Pickering v. Board of Education held that public school employees do not forfeit their First Amendment rights and are able to publicly weigh in on issues of public importance or concern.

"[When] the fact of employment is only tangentially and insubstantially involved in the subject matter of the public communication made by a teacher, we conclude that it is necessary to regard the teacher as the member of the general public he seeks to be,” wrote Justice Thurgood Marshall in his majority opinion.

Balancing Act

That ruling also established what is now known as the Pickering balancing test, in which the court weighs the employee’s interest in commenting upon matters of public concern and the employer’s interest in “promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs.”

In other words, a teacher cannot publicly say something so offensive or inflammatory that it impacts her ability to do her job and educate students.

“Speech that directly impugns students, fellow teachers, or administrators—that’s not going to fare well in the balancing test,” Hudson said. “Speech that would represent a direct affront to basic decency and dignity—that’s going to be a problem as well.”

The courts will have to decide where Clark’s tweets about undocumented students fall in the balancing test, Hudson said: On one hand, the tweets are addressing a matter of public concern—immigration—but the district has a “plausible argument” that the tweets could have been disruptive to school operations.

Even teachers without tenure protections who are in at-will employment states have free speech protections, Hudson said. That said, he added, it can be a tough road for public employees to assert retaliation claims. And for some teachers, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“You don’t want to post something that’s going to blow up in your face, that’s going to get the community against you, or get administrators on your back,” said a band director in the metro Detroit area who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly.

Before she received tenure, she said, she was “chastised” a couple times by administrators for things she had posted about local politics and school board elections online.

“They’re dangling tenure in your face,” she said.

Since the rise of social media has amplified speech, these debates about teachers’ ability to post political opinions online are happening more frequently, Hudson said.

“I think it’s exploding all over the place,” he said. “A lot of them never reach the courts, but these controversies happen all across the country.”

Christina Torres, an 8th grade English teacher at a private school in Honolulu, frequently tweets about her views on education, politics, race, and other social issues, as well as her personal life, including her struggles with anxiety. Her Twitter feed is so candid that Torres, who has written opinion essays for Education Week, pinned a tweet to her profile page saying that she doesn’t mind if students see her “nerd convos.”

Even so, she’s careful about how she words some of her political tweets. Torres has posted about how she donated to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, but she tries to avoid attacking other candidates in an inflammatory way. Instead of making a value judgement, Torres said she tries to present an informed argument about why she agrees or disagrees with someone.

After all, some of her students support Trump, and Torres said she doesn’t want to make them feel unsafe in her classroom.

“I would never make human judgements based on someone’s political views publicly,” she said. “I would never say you’re a bad person because you believe X, because I don’t want my students to see that and think they’re bad people.”

Students Paying Attention

Teachers are conscious that their students might be looking them up online. Keith Mahoney, a 6th grade social studies teacher in Oakland, Maine, said he refrains from sharing his political views online, because he doesn’t want his students to learn them. He wants them to form their own opinions instead.

“They look to me as a leader in the classroom as an adult and model what I’m doing,” he said. “I don’t want them to be a mouthpiece for whatever they’re hearing from Mr. Mahoney.”

Still, many teachers say that education is political. Teachers can draw connections from their classroom to debates on taxes, health care, the economy, immigration, and more.

“We all see the same needs in our schools,” said one educator in Houston who asked to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of the issue. “It’s just we have different opinions on how to mitigate them and how to approach them and solve them.”

According to a 2017 nationally representative Education Week Research Center survey, 31 percent of educators described themselves as Democrats, 30 percent as independents, and 27 percent as Republicans. That breakdown can make it tricky for all teachers to feel comfortable sharing their beliefs online.

“In a profession where most people don’t agree with me politically, you sort of do learn to keep your mouth shut just to get along a little easier,” said a conservative high school science teacher in Maryland who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly.

After the 2016 election, one of his former colleagues yelled at him in the faculty room for his political beliefs. That experience made him hesitant to post about anything political online where his colleagues might see it. He enjoys political conversations, but has found it’s easier to have them offline with friends.

This campaign cycle, “I find it’s easier to just say nothing and try not to offend or upset anybody, rather than take a viewpoint,” the teacher said. “Nobody’s convinced by a Facebook argument—all you end up doing is upsetting people.”

How Willing Are Teachers to Talk Politics Online?

In an increasingly divisive climate, teachers might think twice before posting political opinions on Twitter or Facebook. Education Week asked educators if they talk about politics or controversial issues on social media. Here are some of their responses:

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as Teachers, Politics, & Social Media: A Volatile Mix

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