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Will political correctness indoctrinate our youth?

By Nancy Salvato
web posted March 6, 2006

In response to inflammatory remarks made by Jay Bennish, a teacher at Overland High School in Aurora, Colo., Walter Williams penned a column entitled "Youth indoctrination", in which he ponders, "Regardless of whether you're pro-Bush or anti-Bush, pro-American or anti-American, I would like to know whether there's anyone who believes the teacher's remarks were appropriate for any classroom setting, much less a high school geography class. It's clear the students aren't being taught geography. They're getting socialist lies and propaganda." [1]

The aforementioned teacher made provocative, anti-American statements to his 10th grade "Human Geography" class, such as; "The U.S. has engaged in ‘7,000 terrorist attacks against Cuba,' and, ‘Capitalism is at odds with humanity, at odds with caring and compassion and at odds with human rights.'" [2] (To hear the complete audio, click here)

Because court precedent can only point those who share his outrage in the general direction of how this lecture might be perceived by legal minds, there is no definitive answer to Mr. Williams' question; there cannot be offered any foregone conclusions about whether or not Jay Bennish would be treated as a victim in this case or if his teaching would be considered in violation of the school curriculum.

According to information available at www.enotes.com, K-12, "Teachers in public schools have limited freedoms in the classroom to teach without undue restrictions on the content or subjects for discussion." [3] When determining whether academic freedom has been violated, prior court rulings have taken into consideration factors such as, "age, experience, and grade level of students." [4] Furthermore, legal precedent has generally conceded that, "The content taught by a teacher must be relevant to and consistent with the teacher's responsibilities, and a teacher cannot promote a personal or political agenda in the classroom." [5]

Curriculum guidelines generally fall under the local school board's jurisdiction. Generally, teaching methods, books, and other educational tools fall under this domain. A teacher's lesson plans should be, "designed to teach or convey particular knowledge or skills to students." [6] Moreover, "state laws have almost uniformly required the obedience of subordinate employees, including the classroom teacher, to follow the board's curriculum choices and related mandates." [7] Neither academic freedom nor the First Amendment "gives teachers the authority to disregard the curriculum directives of the board." [8]

School Boards have legitimate reasons to be concerned when a teacher promotes a political agenda. At the very least, any good teacher must present both sides and then leave it to the students to form any opinions with regards to the issue. Some states have statutes and regulations which define, "legitimate pedagogical concerns" [9]. Here is the catch, "Schools need to identify pedagogical concerns before making decisions about a curriculum." [10] Representing Jay Bennish, Attorney David Lane on the March 3, 2006 edition of "Dayside" said that this particular course curriculum had prior approval of the school district. The question is whether the teacher will want to sue the district over this possible "breach of contract". Although the Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) ruling does not compel a public school to affirmatively sponsor speech that conflicts with its educational goals, clearly if Lane's statement was accurate, then Bennish might have a case.

From the sound of it, Bennish may have put together his own curriculum and received prior approval from the school's administration to implement his educational goals and objectives. If his curriculum, as it was being taught, did not receive prior approval from his superiors and the school board, then it is likelier a court ruling would either reflect Boring v. Buncombe Board of Education (4th Cir. 1998) in which the plaintiff failed to, "show that their speech was a matter of public importance or public concern." [11] The majority determined that the teacher's petition was "nothing more than an ordinary employment dispute," [12] which did not warrant First Amendment protection.

Otherwise, because the teacher speech involves the curriculum and occurs in the classroom, a court is equally predisposed to apply precedent established in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1987) in which it was determined that school administrators could censor a school-sponsored newspaper and by extension –school sponsored curriculum. [13] The Supreme Court's Hazelwood ruling attempts to achieve a balance between constitutional rights and the pedagogical mission of public schools, arguing that school administrators must have the power to regulate behavior and preserve traditional rules and values. School officials have the authority to, "Censor, if there is a "reasonable" educational justification, any expression that does not properly reflect the school's educational mission." [14] What's, more,

"School facilities may be deemed to be public forums [261] only if school authorities have by policy or by practice opened the facilities for indiscriminate use by the general public, or by some segment of the public, such as student organizations. If the facilities have instead been reserved for other intended purposes, communicative or otherwise, then no public forum has been created, and school officials may impose reasonable restrictions on the speech of students, teachers, and other members of the school community." [15]

As a rule, "teachers do not have a First Amendment right to trump the curriculum mandated by the school board." [16] It will be interesting to find out whether or not the actual curriculum being taught by Mr. Bennish was approved by the school board and whether or not the school board will retain its authority after all the hullabaloo. I only hope that my federal taxes aren't going to support any school districts across the nation that allow this sort of one sided diatribe, whose sole purpose is to undermine the principles on which our Constitution was founded and in which I believe.

(To hear the complete audio, click here)

Footnotes:

1, 2 Youth indoctrination

3, 4, 5 Teachers' Rights


6, 7, 8, 9, 10 Curriculum

11, 12 Boring v. Buncombe Bd. of Educ., 136 F.3d 364 (4th Cir. 1998)

13 How do courts balance a teacher's First Amendment rights against the interests of the public school system? http://www.firstamendmentschools.org/freedoms/faq.aspx?id=13021

Is a teacher's classroom a public forum?
http://www.firstamendmentschools.org/freedoms/faq.aspx?id=13029

14 The Supreme Court on "Hazelwood": A Reversal on Regulation of Student Expression. ERIC Digest No. 8. 

15 U.S. Supreme Court - HAZELWOOD SCHOOL DISTRICT v. KUHLMEIER, 484 U.S. 260 (1988)

16 May a teacher refuse to teach certain materials in class if she feels the curriculum infringes on her personal beliefs? http://www.firstamendmentschools.org/freedoms/faq.aspx?id=13031

Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, ( www.Basicsproject.org) a non-profit, non-partisan research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy. Copyright © Nancy Salvato 2006

 

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