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Vince Moore

CECS 6010 - Fall 2014


Major Argument #2

Educators Freedom of Speech in the Social Media Realm

Educators Freedom of Speech in the Social Media Realm

Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech These words make
up part of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. However, are all American
citizens guaranteed this right? Of course, we are not protected if our speech causes undue panic,
such as yelling Fire! in a crowded theater. But what about in a classroom? Are teachers
permitted to speak freely within the confines of the educational system? What about after hours;
can teachers speak and act with the same assurances from the Constitution as other citizens get?
Can a teacher speak negatively about the administrators who control school policy or the
governmental leaders that make the decisions that govern the school system? How does social
media play a part in this debate? The answer to these types of questions are very tricky, indeed.
The best way to discern what is and what is not protected is to look at the legal and practical
history of the issue:

examining the idea of teachers personal and academic freedom and

exploring the court rulings concerning free speech for teachers. Finally, one should also look at
current issues in our world that relate to this topic, including teachers use of social media.
Legal and Practical History of Free Speech in Education
The issue surrounding freedom of speech in the educational realm is not a new one. At
several times in our history, school teachers and college professors have been faced with the
specter of being reprimanded for speech or actions that were viewed as contrary to the school
systems goals or guidelines. While it has seen a resurgence in media attention in recent years,
there have long been issues with the enforcement of ideals and legal statutes with respect to what
teachers say and do, both in the classroom and outside of it. The growth of online and cellular
communication has brought its share of issues to this field, with the legal system struggling to

stay up to date with the problems and confrontations in the real world. For instance, in Fort
Worth, Texas, a teacher was under investigation for sexting with a junior high student.
However, the case was dropped because the language of the communication was PG/PG-13 in
nature, and therefore, is protected as free speech (Mitchell, 2014).
Before there were cell phones and the internet, teachers were still fighting for protection
of free speech. In 1968, the US Supreme Court ruled that teachers have the right to speak
publicly about controversial matters without fear of retribution from their school districts in
Pickering v. Board of Education. The case was centered on the actions of Marvin Pickering, a
teacher at that wrote a satirical editorial about the leadership of the school district where he
worked and his feelings towards the handling of a bond election to build schools and the
disbursement of those funds. The Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Pickering had spoken as a
concerned citizen in a public forum in a non-libelous manner, and therefore, his speech was
protected by the First Amendment. Pickering v. Board of Education has been cited dozens upon
dozens of times over the years when the issue of freedom of speech (especially coming from the
mouths of educators) comes into question (Pickering v. Board of Education, 1968).
Another interesting historical reference to freedom of speech in education comes from a
tumultuous time in human history. In 1938, Howard K. Beale wrote about freedom in the Annals
of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. In an era where Europe and Asia were
entrenched in the battle of freedom or fascism, Beale presents a wonderful treatise on the
importance of retaining freedom in American schools.

Beale states that maintaining an

environment of healthy criticism of religious and political beliefs strengthens democratic ideals
and protects our country from subversive ideals of fascism and totalitarianism. He argues that it
is the right of the child, not the teacher, to have a balanced and open education. At one point,

Beale warns against the legislatures taking control of curriculum. He claims it is especially
dangerous because it means prescription of educational programs by politicians who at best are
not expert in education and who often act at the behest of some pressure or other for political
rather than for educational reasons (Beale, 1938, p. 124).

While Beale was referring to

discussions and freedom of speech within the classroom, there are many issues that involve
speech and actions of teachers outside of the bounds of school.
Current Issues with Educator Freedom of Speech
The issue of educators freedom of speech is a long-discussed topic. Over the years, the
ideals of American society have evolved and changed, and with them, the rules--both legal and
societal--that govern the behavior of educators. The world is constantly in a state of change. We
are constantly evolving. What issues are occurring in todays world that could help shape the
issue of education and free speech as we move forward into the future? As mentioned before,
the growth of online media and mobile technology has created a new set of issues for educators.
Students have the ability to capture video and images at a moments notice, which could impact
educators behavior and speech in and out of the classroom. How will this availability of
evidence affect the legal system and its approach toward free speech of educators? And, what
about outside of the classroom? Do educators have freedom of speech online? The battle of
teachers and free speech on social media is fraught with a growing number of issues that have
yet to find stability in the justice system and courts of public opinion. Can a teacher feel free to
post political or religious messages online? What about posts that mention generally accepted
adult behaviors, such as drinking, foul language, or other acts that are not appropriate for the
classroom? Should a teacher have online relationships with students? These issues create a grey
area for all teachers and their social media lifestyles.

Social Media Posts of a Political/Religious Nature


In the classroom, it is the responsibility of the educator to maintain neutrality with regard
to politics and religion.

While openly espousing ones views is not inherently forbidden,

indoctrinating students to one view or the other is not allowed. For instance, if the teacher is
covering a current election, both sides of the issues need to be discussed in an open,
nonthreatening, balanced way in class, even if the teacher takes a side. But what about online?
In todays polarized political climate, it is exceedingly common to see memes of a political or
religious nature shared on social media. Is it acceptable for a teacher to share these posts?
Constitutionally, yes. However, it is up to the teacher to be responsible about what is shared.
While the separation of church and state does not extend to the teachers personal life, it is
important to remember that social media is a public forum, and the educator has a responsibility
to act as such.
Social Media Posts with Adult Themes
Teachers are adults. They have lives outside of the classroom. Sometimes, teachers have
an alcoholic drink or go to parties.

Occasionally, some teachers use foul language when

speaking. While these acts would be offenses worthy of discipline in the classroom, are they
acceptable outside of the bounds of school? Furthermore, is it acceptable for these acts to to be
recorded on social media? Again, the legal precedent is unclear. Simpson (2008) found that in
several situations, teachers have been disciplined or fired for posts that were of an adult nature.
A high school art teacher was fired after posting photographs of his art online, which were
viewed by his students. Unfortunately, his art included covering his genitalia and posterior in
paint and pressing himself onto canvases. Several teachers were dismissed based on posts and
photographs found on Myspace pages. A football coach from Georgia was fired after letting a

student use his school computer, where the student found a trove of photographs of an assistant
principal in tawdry outfits and poses. The student then posted the photographs to the internet
(Simpson, 2008). In all of these cases, the topic of free speech as it relates to educators played a
role. In 2004, a legal case upheld a police departments right to fire an employee because of
posts made from a personal page that were deemed inappropriate and undermined the ethical
goals of his employer. This court case could extend to teachers posts in the classroom (Roe v.
City of San Diego, 2004). So, again, although there appears to be legal grey area underlying a
Constitutional right, the name of the game is responsible behavior. Also, just because a behavior
does not violate a teachers personal moral code, it is important to think of the ethical and moral
bearings of the community and the school that employs them.
Teacher-Student Relationship on Social Media
Perhaps one of the most contentious issues concerning teachers using social media
involves the relationships that can be built with students online. Many school districts have
adopted policies banning teachers from friending students on Facebook or following students on
Twitter, but there are still many places where such policies do not exist. The main goal of
limiting online interaction between teachers and students stems from a fear of inappropriate
relationships, including those of a sexual nature (Delgado, 2013).

However, if a teacher

maintains a friendly, yet professional, connection to the students, then the teacher-student
relationship that builds, in person or on social media, can be very beneficial to the learning
process (Aultman, Williams-Johnson, & Schutz, 2009). Additionally, by becoming friends with
students, it allows the teacher to model appropriate online behavior and correct students
mistakes.

A responsible educator can intervene if a student is acting in a destructive or

inappropriate manner on their social media page.

Conclusion
The issue of free speech, like most Constitutional issues, is a very important and highly debated
one. How teachers and professors express themselves has been the focus of a multitude of
Supreme Court cases over the years (Schimmel & Fischer, 2008), and that trend will doubtlessly
continue in the future. It will be up to the courts and the communities in which teachers live and
work to determine what is appropriate and what is forbidden. And it will be up to the teachers to
test the waters at their own risk. With every right comes a responsibility. It is the duty of every
American to balance our freedoms with proper actions, so that our rights do not infringe on the
rights of others. This important balance of rights and responsibilities is especially important for
educators. It is the job of the educator to model proper citizenship for students; educators,
therefore, should be mindful of how their actions are perceived by observers in all public forums.
The realm of social media is a public forum. Any interactions, words, photographs, etc. are
instantaneously made public upon posting to social media. Do educators have freedom of speech
on social media? Should they be limited in their online interactions? I firmly believe that while
the issue of online freedom of speech is a confusing and unstable arena, a teachers speech is a
constitutionally protected right. However, I also believe that educators must balance this right
with good intentions and proper use of social media by being responsible stewards of online
communication.

References
Aultman, L. P., Williams-Johnson, M. R., & Schutz, P. A. (2009). Boundary dilemmas in
teacher-student relationships: Struggling with the line. Teaching and Teacher Education,
25(5), 636-646.
Beale, H. K. (1938). Freedom for the school teacher. Annals of the American Academy of
Political and Social Science, 200, 119-143.
Delgado, J. M. (2013). Chill out Mrs. Robinson: First amendment implications of limiting
private teacher-student electronic communication. Arizona State Law Journal, 45(1), 299327.
Mitchell, M. (2014, February 25). A teacher, sexting and the right to free speech. Fort Worth
Star-Telegram.
Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968)
Roe v. City of San Diego, 543 U.S. 77 (2004)
Schimmel, D., & Fischer, L. (2008). Teacher freedom of expression: Academic freedom,
association, appearance, and copyright. In School law: What every educator should know :
A user-friendly guide (pp. 51-69). Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.
Simpson, M. D. (2008). The whole world (wide web) is watching. NEA Today. Retrieved from
http://www.nea.org/home/12784.htm