“You who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears, bury the rag most deep in your face, for now’s the time for your tears.” Bob Dylan- The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
When a judge declares that a teacher checks her/his First Amendment rights at the classroom door, we have much to fear from our own government. This is exactly what Judge Sarah Evans Baker did when she dismissed Deb Mayer’s wrongful termination suit against the school district of Bloomington, Indiana.
If you are not familiar with Mayer’s case, the Wisconsin State Journal summarized it in the following way:
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.
A teacher complained to the principal who ordered Mayer not to speak about peace again in her classroom. Even though she complied, the district refused to renew Mayer’s contract at the end of the semester. The school district argued that the dismissal was not based upon the discussion about peace alone. That complaint was just one of many they had received from parents about Mayer’s teaching performance. Now, it could be that the district was right in dismissing Mayer if, in fact, she was not a competent teacher. It seems unlikely that this was the case, however. Mayer had been a highly respected teacher for over 20 years. The other charges of incompetence arose for the first time two years after her dismissal and only after she had refused a $5,000 settlement from the district.
But, what is most disturbing about this case are the comments made by the judge in her ruling. She said, for example:
“teachers, including Ms. Mayer, do not have a right under the First Amendment to express their opinions with their students during the instructional period.”
The judge also ruled that
“school officials are free to adopt regulations prohibiting classroom discussion of the war,” and that “the fact that Ms. Mayer’s January 10, 2003, comments were made prior to any prohibitions by school officials does not establish that she had a First Amendment right to make those comments in the first place.” [consequently, Mayer was attempting to] “arrogate control of the curricula.”
“Whatever the school board adopts as policy regarding what teachers are permitted to express in terms of their opinions on current events during the instructional period, that policy controls, and there is no First Amendment right permitting teachers to do otherwise,”
In these statements, the judge is simply wrong. There is ample precedent that, when asked question when teaching an approved curriculum, a teacher may give an opinion in an appropriate and limited way particularly when relating the issue to the lived experiences of her/his students. Mayer says she plans on appealing the decision. This battle has already cost Mayer $90,000, her job and her home. I wonder how long she can carry on.