Protecting free speech for teachers in a social media world -

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.


Protecting free speech for teachers in a social media world

  1. Nope-not on tax dollars. The guy wasnt arrested-he can be as hateful as he wants. However, he signed a contract stating that he will not disparage any group on public media-he broke the rules. Stating you support gay marriage, equality for millions, is not hate speech and wouldnt make christians uncomfortable (supporters of gay marriage are now the majority and has, on its face, nothign against christians, In fact, majority of christains now support equality-over 70% catholics alone). Thats like stating that if you dont support the KKK, would racists in your class be uncomfortable? Look, atheist, there isnt two sides to this-you either support equality under the law for all or you dont. If you dont, you will keep your mouth shut if you are being paid by my dime. If you arent a public employee, spew hatred all you want, but you will NOT be teaching my kids. Whats next? Supporting the KKK, wishing blacks were slaves again then teaching blacks in school? Is that OK?

  2. You have to ask yourself though, if his comments were about blacks or another minority would or should the reaction be any less. I am a strong advocate for the first amendment and what is posted on the internet can be damaging to a carrier depending on what that career is. I dont have my facebook public or have my work associates as friends because they dont need to see what i do on my spring break or be reading my personal rants on what the GOP and fox news is lying about. He should have made his posts private. If you are a bigot still trapped by achiac way of thinking…you might lose your job especially if you are using a secular governments tax money to teach my children.

  3. The NRLB recently ruled on this and reversed the unlawful termination of an employee for posting comments about his employer on his personal social network pages. The NRLB ruling said that employees cannot be terminated for comments made on personal social network pages.

    I blogged on this on my blog sometime back and have another blog on this same topic posting on a another website in a few days. I have links to several legal blogs about this in my blog. Do a Google search for NRLB social media or NRLB free speech and you will find lots of content about this.

    I don’t expect this to stick, it clearly violates the NRLB ruling.
    Bill Grunau

  4. Of course this bigot has a right to free speech. He has exercised it, or hadn’t you noticed? He even published it. He didn’t use Facebook’s privacy settings, so he published to to the whole internet. If he had said these things about inter-racial marriage (laws against which in the US only nullified lately, by the Supreme Cout, leaving several states with anti-miscegenation laws still in their penal or criminal codes), the only sympathy he would be getting would be from loonies such as himself. If he had said similar things about any racial or religious minority, he would have been fired, rather than merely “transferred to other duties”. He has kids in his classes who are homosexual or have homosexual parents. Does that count for nothing?

  5. I’m for same-sex marriage in all states and I’m as straight as they come. IMO they have the right to be miserable in marriage just like the rest of us! J/K. But in this case this teacher’s first amendment rights have been trampled on. He did not say anything lewd. He did not say what he said on school grounds. He merely stated his opinion on his personal Facebook page.
    I do not see the parallel with “What if he had said he supported the KKK?”. I think this is extremely different than what he was saying. He was stating that this conflicts with his personal religious beliefs. I don’t believe it was out of hatred. Those that think so are looking for stones to throw.

  6. The school district is way out of line in this case. Mr. Buell has every right to express his personal opinions outside his place of employment. What if someone overheard him discussing the subject his family in his yard? Would this be grounds for suspension? After all he is only agreeing with the law and state constitution in Florida where marriage is defined as the union between one man and one woman (Article 1, Section 27). If he is not pushing his own personal opinion in class then the school district should have no authority to suspend him.

  7. Sorry, but no. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences for your speech. I have been a ateacher in several counties, some in Florida, and the contract specifically states that you will not foster a feeling of bias against anyone in your class. The error this idiot made, was opening up his facebook page *to his students*. The minute he did that, he failed. That is the equivalent of friending your boss at work, and then crabbing about him or what a lousy job you have. Freedom of speech laws don’t protect you from the natural consequences of stupidity.

    • QM: IMHO your comment summarizes this the best of all. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences of that speech. People must realize that Facebook is very public and it is very unwise for a teacher to post something of this nature.

      Lots of our personal opinions – religious, political, etc. – are better expressed in more private venues. It we choose to make everything public then we must deal with the consequences.