Online Freedom of Speech Goes Both Ways: PA Teacher is Right to Return to Blogging

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Last week, an English teacher in Central Bucks County PA was suspended for making statements on her blog about her students, their parents, and other teachers at her school. Her statements were made between Aug ’09 and Nov ’10 – and came to light last week when a parent found her blog online. The parent expressed concern to the school about the teacher’s statements in the blog – and the school reacted. Within 15 min of arriving at school on Wed morning last week, the teacher was escorted out the door. Within 24 hours, the teacher was the subject of a full-blown media debate on social media in the schools.

The teacher’s statements were critical. Critical of students whom she describes as “disengaged, lazy whiners.” She also wrote that a student was “frightfully dim;” about another, “rat-like.” She stated that she wished she could tell a parent, that “I hate your kid.” Statements in the blog were also critical of parents and other teachers.

On Saturday, the teacher used her blog site to defend her statements, and to call attention to what she describes as “serious problems with our education system today.” She states that “schools and school districts and parents take teachers who enter the education field full of life and hope and a desire to change the world and positively impact kids, and beat the life out of them and villainize them and blame them for everything.”

The teacher’s attorney, Steve Rovner, stated that the school district “has no basis for firing her.” He went on to point out, that the school district has no policy governing social media in place – and that they specifically do not have a no-blogging policy in place.

Meantime, school and district administrators continue to “investigate” the blogging incidents. There are questions about whether the teacher wrote the blog on school time. [There is one blog entry in which the teacher states that she is blogging on school time, but she later clarifies that the school computer froze and she completed the blog in the evening from home.] The district superintendent stated last week that the statements made by the teacher on her blog site were “very egregious” and “certainly could result in termination.”

In Defense of the Teacher

While it is certainly true that teachers and others entrusted with our children are expected to adhere to a higher standard than most of us mortals, the teacher in this case is being unfairly pilloried in the press and is being unfortunately let down by her school district.

First, none of the comments in her blog named specific students nor teachers. Her comments amount to venting, and venting with a sometimes humerous bent. Second, the teacher did not make these comments meanly; she intended them for her known 9 followers – her family and friends. Admittedly, there is a lesson here in that comments made on the Internet are never private. However, she had no intention of hurting a student, parent, nor colleague.  Third, her comments are worth considering: all is not well in our schools and perhaps we should listen to teachers when they tell us that they feel unsupported.

Most importantly, however, the school district’s lack of a policy on social media invited problems. The district administrators – including superintendent N. Robert Laws himself – should take a hard look in the mirror.

Just as in the case of the CA student earlier this mo in which his comments on Facebook were considered to be free speech, I believe that the teacher in this case also has a right to free speech. As she says, why should teachers be restricted from doing something “that everyone else is allowed to do.” As long as here comments were not specific to an individual student, and they were not. As long as she blogged on her own time, and she says that she did.

I would hate to believe, as has been reported, that many teachers across the country have shut down their own blogs as a result of this story. We need the voices of teachers to be heard.

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This entry was posted in Blogging, In the News and tagged , , by Kelly Baig. Bookmark the permalink.

About Kelly Baig

Kelly Baig is a concerned parent of a 13 yo girl and independent marketing consultant with insatiable curiousity about all things online. Kelly runs a successful marketing services firm, WaveBreak Marketing, in operation since 2007. Kelly has over 20 years of experience in B2B marketing, including social media and online communications for clients primarily in high-tech. In her spare time, Kelly can be found training for the triathlon at her local Y, knitting, walking her two Yorkies, and trying to learn how to cook Indian food for her husband.

4 thoughts on “Online Freedom of Speech Goes Both Ways: PA Teacher is Right to Return to Blogging

  1. I am all for Free Speech. I do believe we all have the right and should frequently call upon that right to express what we think, feel and desire. However, as a teacher, she should have demonstrated more respect in her language. Even if she didn’t name names, she did model fairly immature tactics of calling names and using hurtful words (“rat-like”..??). I think teachers should not only blog, they should encourage their students to do so, but as digital citizens, we should adhere to the basic rules of courtesy and compassion. She did not.

    My fear is with the particular students she teaches this year, and those yet to come. Now that she has come out and used this kind of negative tone to put down her class, how are they to feel about her? I can put myself in a student’s shoes, wondering, “is it ME she hates? Am I the one she thinks is a rat-like person, and if so, what does she mean?” As a parent, I would have wanted this teacher to at least apologize, and confront the issue head on. A teacher once bullied my son, in Grade 4, and outright called him a “loser” multiple times, ridiculing him for my own actions of taking the issue to the school board. He grew to hate school, and I worried for his progress when he came to Grade 5. How is this different?

    It is even more insidious because she hasn’t named names; not that naming students would have been preferable, but the allusion to them now involves EVERY student she teaches, and if I were a student going into her class next year, I’d worry about what she might be writing about me.

    To play Devil’s Advocate: is it better to know about this side of her personality now, so that one can act accordingly in the future?

    In my opinion, she did herself no favors by resorting to such negativism. If she was hoping to change their behavior or attitudes, there were a lot of avenues she could have taken, including writing an example of what she would have liked to see in her students. If she wanted to simply vent her spleen, it should never have been public. That’s what hard drives and paper diaries are for.

    The Internet is not private. And it has the potential to cause great emotional damage to those who don’t even engage in its activities. But for those who can access blogs such as this teacher’s, and are personally involved in the situation, it can be quite hurtful – I would not want my child to be the target of her poison keyboard.

  2. First, as an aside, I would like to start by thanking Lissa for her well-considered, thoughtful, and articulate opinion. We started OSS to encourage exactly this type of respectful discussion on issues which are far from being simple or clear-cut.

    To address specifically what you say, Lissa, I (and the team at OSS) would certainly agree that this teacher did not model good behavior. However, we also do not believe that her online blog statements qualify as cyberbullying. To be in that category, we believe that the statements would have had to have been directed by name to a specific individual, and made with nefarious intent.

    Our concern with the school district’s action, is that they suspended this teacher on what seems very flimsy grounds. Does a teacher give up the right to free speech just because he or she is a teacher? If the teacher does not use the best language – and even uses offensive language – to express an opinion, does that mean that the teacher should be suspended from teaching? We think not.

    We need to hear the voices of our teachers. Rather than shutting them down from the use of blogging, we’d rather encourage them to express their real opinions. Yes, we’d rather, also, that teachers – along with the rest of us – be wiser in the choice of language and phrase.

    The debate on what qualifies as cyberbullying, and what standards we will all be held to meet – whether we be teachers, students, or parents – is far from over. The laws are in the process of being debated and written. After they are passed, the laws will be interpreted by the courts. School policies on social media are likewise in the process of being formulated. We hope that collectively we are wise enough to set the appropriate boundaries, which encourage the active interchange of ideas and free speech.

  3. Thanks, Kelly, for the great discussion. Cyberbullying is the topic of my Masters thesis, and I feel I have a deep knowledge of the topic. Certainly you’re right, the definition you posted holds water, but perhaps we need to stretch a tad, so that we aren’t falling to formulaic “diagnosis” of a problem. As I said, were I to be a student in this teacher’s class, I would feel targeted. My son, when he was in grade 4, told me point blank that he didn’t feel the teacher liked him. She had shown him her contempt, to be sure, but he generalized it to her entire judgment of him. I think it is important to define cyberbullying but to provide all ways in which it manifests, not just the neat ones.

    Just as the case you blogged about in MO, this, too, is messy. No names were mentioned but certainly a small number of students in that school are aware that they just might be the ones she hates.

    I do believe that training on the topic of cybersafety, cyberbullying and netiquette should be given, to everyone in schools from students to administrators, and to parents as well. Of course, the practice of common decency would be an obvious choice to invoke but it wasn’t shown here. The fact is, cyberbullies – or even those people merely not employing thoughtfulness online – feel that they can say anything they want because it is online and not face to face. This MUST be disspelled. Anonymity should not only mean that of the poster – it should apply to the situation in which it doesn’t take much investigation to detect the targets.

    I’m uncomfortable with giving the teacher a pass based on free speech. I’m all for teachers blogging and I think it is CRUCIAL for them to do so in order for educational practices to move ahead. Their voices are vital in the push for progress in our educational systems. And certainly this teacher did not commit an overly egregious transgression. But something about it is definitely in need of discussion.

    I’d be interested to know if this generated any talk in her classroom – or if it had the opposite effect and has caused the students to withdraw. Follow-up, in this case, would be most enlightening!

  4. I saw this on Twitter and am posting the link – the letter states, very eloquently, many of the points I made here and on Twitter regarding this issue. The writer states that yes, the kids DID know the teacher doesn’t like them – which is what I have stated as well. And that no matter what, as teachers, the standard has to be higher, even where free speech is concerned.

    Have a look:

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