Sunday, February 20, 2011

Free Speech Isn't Free

[This article was first published as Teacher Blogger Put on Administrative Leave on Technorati.]

Stop the bus. I want to get off. I'm just a bit queasy about the rush to make that Pennsylvania teacher the poster child for free speech after she was put on administrative leave for blogging about her public school kiddos as lazy whining ninnyhammers. 

According to news reports, "In between blog posts about muffins, Food Network stars and her favorite movies, she [Natalie Munroe] posted long, profanity-peppered rants" about bosses, co-workers and her students.

Please understand that I love the First Amendment. I strongly believe in free speech and even have the track record to prove it. Some people think free speech is free, but free speech has never been and never will be free. As a high school journalism teacher and newspaper adviser, I admonish my students that free speech always comes with two price tags: (1) great responsibility and (2) consequences. If you are going to say it, you better be willing to pay the price for it. 

This rush to applaud Ms. Munroe for airing what is now being called her "unapologetic take on the state of the nation's education" bothers me just a bit. Teachers get all in a dither when they discover students posting profanity and/or unflattering comments about them, so I can understand the outcry from parents and students.

Many schools have policies regarding online behavior outside of school. The Student Press Law Center which keeps track of First Amendment cases shows conflicting rulings on such cases. So far, there is not a definitive Supreme Court answer as to just how far a person can push it online.

Like it or not, teachers, like many other types of public officials, are held to a higher standard because we are supposed to exemplify and model certain behaviors for our nation's young. I don't think cussing like a road-rage driver is one of those behaviors.

Interestingly enough, even news organizations have fired bloggers and commentators for their opinions. Remember the firestorm over the firing of Juan Williams at NPR? Remember when ESPN fired Paul Shirley for blogging his comments about Haiti or when CNN fired producer Chez Pazienza for violating its "standards of journalism" on blogging?

Some schools and businesses have policies about their employees' online activities. And, as Munroe discovered, posting anonymously doesn't provide protection. Many teachers, including myself, are able to blog successfully about our views on public education and life in the classroom. That probably has something to do with the manner in which we do it — sort of the difference between tabloid reporting and journalism.

Sometimes we really shouldn't speak the bubble above our head, and sometimes we're not supposed to speak the bubble above our head. Is that right or fair? Well, that's a matter of opinion.

And that's probably a good lesson to learn.


Melissa B. said...

The real exercise in the 1st Amendment is what's happening in Wisconsin right now. My daughters have been down to the state capitol demonstrate for the rights of teachers not only in the Badger State but everywhere.

itsjustme said...

The pieces that do seem to stand out are that 1. she posted anonymously and never mentioned names of students, administrators or her school. 2. The profanity laced didn't read as particularly bad to me, but perhaps being in a high school and listening to what kids say all day as made "profanity laced" less definable. Crap hardly seems like profanity at this point. 3. I don't believe her district had a policy, and are we saying that if she had taken out the dirty words it would have been ok?

Those were the things that stood out for me. And as a girl that has gotten in trouble for her blog and her views, it does worry me.

Unknown said...

Very well said and a welcome reminder that though we are legally able to say what we wish, we are still responsible for the consequences of our words!

Curmudgeon said...

The Internet is not the place for "Things That will Get You Fired" folder, unless you are much more careful about your anonymity than "Natalie M." with picture and occasional references to husband's full name and the school district.

askthehomediva said...

I understand what you are saying, but (1)posting anonymously never provides "protection" and I am also a firm believer in if it's important enough to say, it's important enough for people to know who said it. (Obviously, there are exceptions such as those cases of life and death) (2) the profanity includes words much stronger than crap (3) Yes, I agree her district should have had a policy, but do we have to have a policy for everything when common sense should prevail? And finally, I agree, that she has to the right to say it, but there are consequences for that right. Why would an employer want someone working for them who is not on board with their philosophical direction? But that's an entirely different can of worms that I don't even want to open.

Bottom line: If you write in your journal that you snuck out one night and your parents read your journal, well you had every right to write it, but then why be surprised when you get grounded for it? And yes, you can argue that your parents had no right to read it, but they're still in charge, and you're still grounded.

Just like Curmudgeon notes, the Internet is really not the place for things that belong in the "Things That Will Get You Fired" folder.