Copyright © 2006 Henrietta W. Hay
The Hazards of Teaching: Freedom of Speech
March 17, 2006
Teaching has become a dangerous profession. In these days of violent political opinions and lawsuits, teachers hardly know what they can say to their students. Several teachers across the country have lost their jobs for making statements that parents did not want their little darlings to hear. Linda Manning, a Florida teacher said, "A High School teacher has no speech rights, yet must use words to deliver the curriculum. We walk on the edge of a sword."
The latest Colorado incident took place, not in the People's Republic of Boulder as you might expect, but in the Cherry Creek School District in Denver. That is, or was once, a solidly Republican neighborhood.
Jay Bennish is a Social Studies teacher at Overland High School in Aurora, which is in the Cherry Creek district. Last month he was discussing with his class the political situation in the United States. It was the morning after President Bush's State of the Union address. He was talking about Bush's speech, and according to the tape which one student made he said that some of Bush's speech "sounds a lot like the things that Adolph Hitler used to say. We're the only ones who are right. Everyone else is backwards and our job is to conquer the word and make sure that they all live just like we want them to."
One of the students recorded the lecture, and took the tape , not to his principal, but to a Denver radio station which used parts of it on a talk show. Mr. Bennish was removed from duty while the district investigating.
Did Bennish commit a crime? Not in America. Bad judgment maybe.
Against the school rules maybe. But criminal? No. The school district apparently feels the same way, since he has been reinstated with full pay.
What we don't know is what else he said, or what he thought. If he is a good teacher, he was probably trying to get his students to think and to form opinions. As a matter of fact, if he had left out the reference to Hitler, I think a lot of us would agree with him. But if he was trying to force his own political opinions on his students, he still had the right to free speech, but he had to pay for it.
Free speech in modern America is a slippery slope. People in positions of power over others should generally be restricted from forcing their personal opinions on politics and religion on others.
It is hard to draw the line, but it leads us right into the issue of the separation of church and state
My friend the attorney says that all speech is free -- except for shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, or starting a riot. BUT there are consequences. If what you say offends someone, the consequences can be very serious, but you had a right to say it.
If I went to a Republican Rally and started dissing President Bush, that would be free speech but I probably would get kicked out on my ear -- as I should. Or if Dick Cheney were to come to the Colorado Democratic convention and pitch the Bush social and financial policies, he would be taken to the airport immediately.
The line between free speech and not quite free speech is a very thin one today. It is a very dangerous situation when our public school teachers are "on the edge of a sword."