On Campus

Protecting free speech for teachers in a social media world

Florida teacher should keep his job: Pettigrew

Photo courtesy of Spencer E Holtaway on Flickr

Florida teacher Jerry Buell has been suspended from teaching after posting controversial comments on his Facebook page. The American history teacher was angered by a TV news report on the legalization of gay marriage in New York, according to Fox News.  “I almost threw up,” he wrote in a post. “If they want to call it a union, go ahead. But don’t insult a man and woman’s marriage by throwing it in the same cesspool of whatever. God will not be mocked. When did this sin become acceptable?”

School district officials say that Buell has crossed a line, that teachers are bound by special codes of ethics, and that a Facebook page is a public forum.

Nonsense. Readers of this space will know that I am an outspoken advocate for the rights of gays and lesbians. (This post, for example.) And I hasten to point out that Buell’s statements are, in my judgement, stupid and mean-spirited. But he has the right to make them.

A Facebook page is a personal expression of one’s own particular tastes and attitudes. Indeed, it is hard to think of any mode of communication more centered on an individual. Buell was describing his revulsion toward love unlike his own; he did not claim to be speaking for the Lake County School District, or for Mount Dora High School or for anyone else.

I have sympathy with those who believe a gay student may now be uncomfortable in this guy’s class.

But if the standard is whether someone could potentially be uncomfortable, that’s casting much too wide a net. If that standard holds, it could be used to restrict the expression of almost any comment on any controversial issue. Suppose, for instance, Buell had said the reverse. Suppose he had celebrated the gay marriage legislation in New York. Would some devout Christians feel uncomfortable in his class?

Probably. The question must not be what a student heard about what a teacher said on the internet. The test must be: how does that teacher comport himself in class? If he’s worth his salary, he should take special care to make sure that when controversial issues come up, he presents all sides fairly. I myself am a committed atheist, but when religious questions come up — as they often do in literary studies — I try to ensure that the discussion is appropriately balanced.

In cases like Jerry Buell’s, people are quick to point out that there are limits to free speech; of course there are. But in a free society those limits have to be clearly defined and enforced only when absolutely necessary. If being wrong on Facebook is a crime, who among us is safe?

As long as he’s keeping his opinion to himself in class, Jerry Buell should keep his job.

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