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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Ind. Decisions - Still more on: "'Honk for peace' case tests limits on free speech"

"High court weighs Hoosier free-speech case: Ex-Bloomington teacher says school fired her for comments on Iraq war," is the headline to this story today by Fort Wayne Journal Gazette Washington editor, Sylvia A. Smith. Some quotes:

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court will decide whether a Bloomington school system went overboard in 2003 when it fired an elementary teacher after comments she made to her class on the eve of the invasion of Iraq or whether her contract wasn’t renewed because she was a poor teacher.

Deborah Mayer told her students she would “honk for peace” when driving by war protests. Some parents complained, and the Monroe County Community School Corp. did not renew her teaching contract.

Mayer, who now teaches seventh grade in Florida, sued. She lost her case, and the appeals court sided with the school. Mayer asked the Supreme Court to take her case on free-speech grounds.

The Bloomington school district said the court should uphold the appeals court’s ruling that schools have the right to tell teachers what to teach and that “job-related speech by an elementary school teacher is not protected by the First Amendment.” * * *

The Supreme Court will either agree to hear the case – ultimately choosing between Mayer and the Bloomington school system – or refuse to consider it, which would be a victory for the school board. The justices have not yet said whether they will accept or reject the case.

“The school system does not regulate teachers’ speech as much as it hires that speech,” the appeals court in Chicago said when it ruled against Mayer in January.

“A teacher hired to lead a social-studies class can’t use it as a platform for a revisionist perspective that Benedict Arnold wasn’t really a traitor, when the approved program calls him one; a high-school teacher hired to explicate ‘Moby-Dick’ in a literature class can’t use ‘Cry, The Beloved Country’ instead, even if Paton’s book better suits the instructor’s style and point of view; a math teacher can’t decide that calculus is more important than trigonometry and decide to let Hipparchus and Ptolemy slide in favor of Newton and Leibniz,” the appeals court wrote.

Mayer’s attorney, Michael Schultz, said she did not subvert the school board’s curriculum because the class was about current events, and “opinions were the curriculum.” He said Mayer appropriately responded when a student asked whether she would ever march in a peace protest, as was described in the “Time for Kids” article the class read.

The judges said Mayer was told she could teach the controversy about the war “as long as she kept her opinions to herself. The Constitution does not entitle teachers to present personal views to captive audiences against the instruction of elected officials.”

In papers Mayer’s attorney filed with the Supreme Court, this description of the situation was called “blatantly false.” Mayer “was never told to keep her opinions to herself until after her class discussed a ‘Time for Kids’ article” about the upcoming war, Schultz told the justices. He said the appeals court implied that Mayer was disobedient when she was not. He said she was following the curriculum to teach current events.

He said the Supreme Court should determine whether teachers have any free-speech protection under the First Amendment.

The school system argued that the justices should take a pass on the case because “Mayer was a failing teacher headed for termination who sought to avoid this outcome by injecting her personal opinions regarding the Iraq war into her elementary school classroom” and then hiding behind the First Amendment.

Earlier ILB entries on this case may be found here (the Jan. 24, 2007) 7th Circuit opinion, here (May 14, 2007 LA Times story), and here (June 24th report).

Posted by Marcia Oddi on August 29, 2007 10:38 AM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions