Saturday, August 20, 2011

Florida teacher reassigned for Facebook posting ("anti-gay?"); teacher Internet public speech still a matter of controversy

The Orlando Sentinel (FL) reports that a high school social studies teacher Jerry Buell was suspended and reassigned after his Facebook postings reportedly hostile to same-sex couples (apparently in the context of the gay marriage debate) were noticed by students and school administrators.

Buell insists he is within his First Amendment rights since he made the comments on his own time and with his own computer.

But school districts are increasingly taking the position that speech in social media and personal blogs is inherently public and can lead to disciplinary action if it proves disruptive.

There is, technically, some difference between posts in blogs intended to be viewed by “everyone” and particularly those indexed by search engines, and those with some privacy controls and intended to be seen primarily by friends’ or followers’ lists, which is common practice with Facebook and Twitter. Generally, school districts and other employers have not noted this distinction. Dr. Phil has often warned teenagers that “private” postings tend to get circulated by others virally.

The Los Angeles Times has an editorial which affirms the teacher’s free speech rights (while disagreeing with the teacher on gay marriage, but endorsing his right to express his opinions).  The editors think that students (and workplace associates) must learn to live in a pluralistic world where teachers or bosses with authority over them may express differing and controversial views on matters that can affect students or subordinates.
On the other hand, if a teacher (or a boss in the workplace) has a track record of a lot of web postings that show hostility to persons with certain attributes (whatever these may be), the teacher’s (or supervisor’s) objectivity might be questioned, leading to legal challenges (hostile workplace or learning environment).   I’ve discussed this potential “conflict of interest” problem here a lot before.  One possibility is that employers could require “pre-publication review” of any postings that are intended for “everyone” –level viewing and search engine access.  I have written about this problem as far back as 2000 and gotten reactions as early as 2002.  But social media, when primarily used as a social tool rather than publication device, have complicated the picture.

I written a lot about my own experience with this issue as a substitute teacher. I believe that another school may have canceled my assignments in early 2005 without “banning” me formally because of the tone of some of my online movie reviews (where sometimes I made wisecracks about the physical appearances of actors, which could have been misconstrued (as “prejudicial”) when found by people in a school environment even though posted outside of school).

The link for the LA Times opinion is here.   The original Orlando story is here.

All of this reminds me of a case in the 1990s when an openly lesbian reporter for a Tacoma WA newspaper was reassigned for public gay activism, on the theory that her public “objectivity” as a reporter had been compromised.  The Washington state supreme court upheld the paper.

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