Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Free Speech And The Public School Classroom

She says that she was fired from her teaching job because she expressed disapproval of the Iraq War in her classroom. The district said that she was fired "mainly" because of her poor classroom performance:
In the tense months before the United States invaded Iraq, elementary school teacher Deb Mayer was asked by one of her students whether she'd ever join an anti-war protest. The question was prompted by a Time For Kids magazine story that Mayer's students had just read about a peace march in Washington, D.C.

Mayer, who had never been politically active, told her Bloomington, Ind., class that she sometimes blew her car horn to support demonstrators carrying "Honk for Peace" signs at the local courthouse. Mayer also told the class she thought it was important to seek out peaceful solutions before going to war.

That conversation in January 2003, which lasted all of five minutes, launched a nearly three-year odyssey for Mayer, who now lives in Madison as she awaits the outcome of her federal lawsuit against the Monroe County, Ind., school system for firing her.

Mayer and her son, Jake, share an apartment near the Veterans Hospital in Madison, where he is the chief resident for internal medicine. Mayer has two other sons, including one who is in the Army, deployed to Afghanistan.

Mayer, 56, insists her contract to teach at Clear Creek Elementary School was not renewed because administrators and the parents of one of her students strongly disagreed with her pro-peace statements. In her lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Mayer alleges the school District violated her constitutional right to free speech.

A call to the attorney for the Monroe County Community School Corp. wasn't returned. But the district's position is outlined in a 34-page court brief seeking dismissal of the case.

School officials contend Mayer was fired for poor performance in her alternative learning classroom, which included students in grades 4 through 6. They say Mayer's statements concerning peace were just a small part of the problem.

"Ms. Mayer's speech on the war was not the reason for her ultimate termination," the School District said. "Instead . . . the motivating factor for her termination was her poor classroom performance, the ongoing parental dissatisfaction and the allegations of harassment and threats toward students."

They allege that Mayer was rude and demeaning to students and their grades suffered as a result. They said six students asked to be transferred from the class, including the daughter of the parents who protested Mayer's peace discussion. And after being told not to talk about the impending war, Mayer did it again, the brief said.

Mayer said she never talked about it after the "peace incident," for fear of losing her job. Her concerns were heightened by the school's decision to cancel its annual Peace Month, a memo sent to teachers warning them "not to promote any particular view on foreign policy related to the situation in Iraq" and a note sent to her to "refrain from expressing your political views."

Mayer said the allegations that she was demeaning and rude to students are "patently false." She said she heard the allegations for the first time this summer, more than two years after her contract was discontinued and only after she rejected the district's offer of a $5,000 settlement.

"The school is really trying to prove that I was a bad teacher when I have never been known except as an excellent teacher," said Mayer, whose teaching career spanned more than 20 years, including at the university level and at The Key School, a well- respected public school run by teachers in Indianapolis.

Mayer believes the decision in her case, expected to go to trial March 6, could provide important guidance about what teachers can say to students.

"This is what I would call a classic First Amendment, free-speech case," said Mayer's attorney, Michael Schultz of Indianapolis. "It tests the boundaries of what rights under the Constitution a teacher has to say things. It's really hard to imagine a situation in which a teacher gives lessons about peace as an alternative to war, and she gets disciplined for it."

The Bloomington, Ind., School District argues that previous courts have ruled teachers have no constitutional right to choose their curriculum and therefore "Ms. Mayer's classroom speech is not constitutionally protected." Mayer and Schultz counter that other court decisions hold that "neither students nor teachers 'shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.'"

In November, Madison had its own debate over the limits of political expression in the classroom. Allis Elementary School canceled a student project to write a series of letters to a variety of recipients urging an end to the war after the grandmother of a student complained. Superintendent Art Rainwater said the assignment violated a School Board policy against using students in any political activity.

John Matthews, president of Madison Teachers Inc., said the district's collective bargaining agreement advises teachers to present controversial topics "only after careful study and planning" and to confer with the principal if there's any doubt. Teachers also are advised to withhold expressing their personal opinions unless responding to a direct question.

"We've had zero problems if people follow this," Matthews said.

The statewide teachers union also gets very few inquiries from educators who feel their free-speech rights have been violated, said Bruce Meredith, general counsel for the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

Meredith said in most Wisconsin cases, disputes about what teachers can say in the classroom are worked out informally on the local level. Most teachers use common sense in determining what they should say to students and "most school districts, to use a phrase, don't want to make a federal case of it," he said.

"Most teachers are pretty sensitive to their audience, and most school boards are sensitive to their teachers' First-Amendment rights," Meredith said. "If you're teaching a social- studies class, obviously you've got more leeway talking about the Iraq war than if you're teaching a biology class."

Mayer said her experience has turned her, for the first time in her life, into a peace activist. Mayer moved to Vermont for a time in 2004 to work for Howard Dean, the anti-war Democratic presidential candidate. When Dean was knocked out of the race, she joined the John Kerry campaign in Madison.

This summer, Mayer camped with Cindy Sheehan in Crawford, Texas, outside President Bush's ranch. And in September, she joined thousands of anti-war protesters at a march in Washington, D.C. She now heads a fledgling Madison-based group called Share the Sacrifice to help returning war veterans and to advocate for peace.

Mayer hopes her lawsuit will at least recoup the $60,000 she's spent in legal fees fighting the black mark on her teaching career. And she hopes it will make it safer for teachers to talk about the important issues of the day.

Said Mayer: "I had $90,000 in the bank. I had a home. I had health insurance. I had all of that. And now that's all gone - and all because I made one simple statement. It turned my life upside down."
During World War II, which was America's last declared war, folks on the homefront were often reminded that "A slip of the lip could sink a ship."

It may very well be that during this very different conflict that a "slip of the lip" can cost one his or her job.

Be that as it may, this particular incident is so full of charges and counter-charges that it would be difficult to make an educated guess about what the facts are until after the legal proceedings have concluded.

If what the district says is true, (that Mayer refused to cease classroom discussions about the war after being directed to do so) then the district would likely have a legally-sound case for terminating her employement due to insubordination.

Most collective bargaining agreements indicate that teachers must comply with their supervisors directives pending the outcome of grievances or other appeals. This might explain why her union doesn't seem to eager to rush to Mayer's defense.

Whatever the facts are, this incident does provoke some interesting questions:
What, if any, limits should be placed on teachers when discussing current events with their students?

Should a district be able to dismiss a teacher for the expression of political opinions in the classroom assuming that those discussions do not violate the law?
Food for thought.
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