Puppet Show or Political Theater?
While the Court acknowledged that the Iraq War "is an issue of public importance," Mayer's rights as a public employee are restricted by a series of prior rulings, and specific limits apply in the classroom as teachers must execute the curriculum established by a chain of command that begins with the school principal. The Court argues "...that teachers hire out their own speech and must provide the service for which employers are willing to pay..."
The opinion concluded with the following contention: "It is enough to hold that the First Amendment does not entitle primary and secondary teachers, when conducting the education of captive audiences, to cover topics, or advocate viewpoints, that depart from the curriculum adopted by the school system."
While I will not quarrel with the opinion produced by the 7th Circuit as they are tasked with doing little more than applying past precedent to the facts of the case on hand, I do hope that Ms. Mayer appeals and that the Supreme Court grants cert and attends to a matter of utmost importance. Teachers are not mindless drones who operate out of a prescribed educational cookbook. They are for the most part highly-trained, yet underpaid, professionals who are fully capable of conducting themselves in a neutral fashion before students when addressing controversial subjects. Ms. Mayer's example serves to illustrate the multiple perspectives that the current conflict in Iraq extract from our citizenry. Her actions, whether right or wrong, mundane or controversial, deserve and demand constitutional protection.
On a personal level, I taught high school social studies for six years. I incorporated current events discussions into each subject to which I was assigned, from history, to economics, to government. These discussions cemented the importance of the material in the standard curriculum and allowed students to apply class principles to the real world. I encouraged students to take informed positions on these issues, but always avoided sharing my own beliefs. I chose this path not for constitutional reasons, but instead because I respected my students enough to draw their own conclusions when presented with objective information.
Some of my peers did use the classroom as a political platform, and I vehemently objected to these tendencies on pedagogical grounds. Then and now, however, I believe the First Amendment and their credentials as educators enable then to make this decision. Not a group of "concerned parents," not the students themselves, and certainly not the powers that be who spend little or no time in the classroom with tomorrow's leaders. We can only shield students from the realities of the society they will soon inhabit for so long, and we insult their intelligence when we take away their ability to make their own judgments about the political commentary and actions of their teachers.
To read the entire opinion, access the following web site and type in the docket number 06-1993. Then click "submit." The site does require free registration.