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First Amendment Rights for Teachers

A teachers who wants to challenge her students through her choices of materials, discussion topics, writing Firstamendment1 assignments, or units of study may provoke opposition from parents who disagree with those choices.  Under a worse case scenario, she may even lose her job.

Tipp City, Ohio teacher Shelley Evans-Marshall found herself in that situation in March of 2002 when the board of education terminated her contract.  Evans-Marshall sued the board on the basis that it had violated her First Amendment right to free speech.  In the end, the U.S. Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit last week handed down its decision that teachers in fact have no First Amendment free speech protection for curricular decisions.  Instead, the board of education has the right to “regulate the content of what is or is not expressed in the classroom.”

The details of the situation will sound familiar to many school administrators.  Evans-Marshall’s reading choices offended some parents, who complained to the principal.  The principal, wishing to avoid conflict with parents, told the teacher to pick other books.  But the controversy had already gotten legs, and 500 parents signed a petition ostensibly against the teacher’s choices, even though it seems unlikely that most of these folks had ever read the books in question or had children in the teacher’s classes.

In the ensuing months the relationship between the teacher and her principal rapidly deteriorated into negative evaluations.  The result was that the board unanimously voted to terminate her contract; she subsequently charged the board with violating her right to free speech.

Well, if it weren’t for poor judgment, none of them – teacher, principal, or board – would have any judgment at all.

Let’s focus, for a moment, not on the court’s decision, but on how the whole situation might have been avoided in the first place.

To begin with, every school district should have a policy in place for how to deal with parental objections to materials.  It shouldn’t be up to the principal to decide what he or she personally thinks are appropriate materials.  The American Association of School Librarians or the National Council of Teachers of English provide resources for the development of a policy.  When an objection occurs, the teacher and administrator simply follow the policy.  It’s protection for the teacher, the principal, and ultimately for the board.

Secondly, many teachers have learned to minimize conflict by sending a letter home   listing book titles, acknowledging they contain language or situations some may find objectionable, and explaining their place in the unit of study.  Parents may request that their child have alternate choices, but those books must be at the same level of difficulty.  Being proactive may not completely diffuse the situation, but it lets parents in on the ground level of decision making.

I agree with the court’s decision that the district didn’t violate Evans-Marshall’s First Amendment rights.  The judge, after all, questioned how a school district could operate if all teachers simply made their own individual curricular decisions.  But if the administration and board had established policies and procedures for parental objections to materials, both the district and the teacher might have fared better.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.