Publisher’s Perspective: Facebook and Freedom of Speech

By : Tom Dyer
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TomDyerHeadshotLast week, a Lake County social studies teacher became the subject of national debate when he was suspended for a Facebook post decrying same-sex marriage. After a brief investigation, the school district placed an unspecified written directive in Jerry Buell’s file and returned him to his Mt. Dora High School classroom.

The case generated widespread coverage in media outlets as diverse as The New York Times and Fox News because it raises complex issues of free speech in the age of social media particularly for teachers. Need proof? Buell was defended by both the American Civil Liberties Union and the ultra-conservative Liberty Counsel.

His case also confronts separation of church and state. On his class syllabus, Buell warns students, I teach God’s truth… if you have a problem with that, get your schedule changed. And on his school web page now deleted he claimed that he teaches as if Lake County Schools had hired Jesus Christ himself.

Here’s part of the Facebook post that got Buell in trouble:

I’m watching the news, eating dinner, when the story about New York okaying same-sex unions came on and I almost threw up. Then they showed two guys kissing. Don’t insult marriage by throwing it in the same cesspool as same-sex whatever! God will not be mocked. I will never accept this sin and refuse to condone it or shut my eyes to it

The school district requires educators to value the worth and dignity of every student. Some agree with Buell’s former student, 26-year-old Tyler Morris, that the Facebook post violates that directive.

It really is scary,  Morris told the Orlando Sentinel. He has repeatedly made students uncomfortable and fearful, and it should not be tolerated.

But some liberal commentators and many of my gay friends lined up behind Buell, who after reinstatement said, I was thrown in the blender for exercising my First Amendment rights.

Discussion of the case reminds me of law school, where professors delight in tweaking facts to test the reasoning power of students. For instance, what if Buell had merely stated his objection to same-sex marriage without all the invective? And would it make a difference if he taught in elementary school? College?

If you think you’re getting a handle on the ethical logistics, consider this curveball, also taken from recent local news. What if the posting was by a third party, and exposed a past in gay porn?

Using the pseudonym Collin O’Neal, Shawn Loftis had a substantial career directing and starring in hard-core films like Mo’ Bubble Butt and Humping Iron. But in 2010 he gave it up to become a substitute math teacher at all grade levels in the Miami-Dade school system. When web sites displaying his prurient past were exposed by a fellow teacher, the school system suspended Loftis for violating a rule demanding that faculty conduct themselves, both in their employment and in the community, in a manner that will reflect credit upon themselves and the school system. The Florida Department of Education then revoked his teaching certification.

Despite the incredibly subjective standard applied, even the ACLU wouldn’t touch Loftis’ appeal. Your case would be stronger if your job did not involve supervising children, a representative understated.

Venture with me back to the law school classroom: What if Loftis had been turned in for sexual photos he’d posted on a members only web site like Manhunt.com? Or what if he had posed nude decades ago to help pay for college like hunky Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts?

There’s no question that a teacher’s private life can have a profound impact on their students. I recall dropping something off at a beloved teacher’s home one holiday weekend while I was in the third grade. She was sloppy after a few drinks. It was an image I was unable to shake the rest of the school year.

One of my favorite English teachers in high school was a tall redhead with a thick beard who wore turtleneck sweaters and round John Lennon glasses. Just out of college, Mr. Baker sparkled with post-sixties radical idealism and made no attempt to hide his liberal politics, infuriating my conservative classmates. He was so cool.

I ran into him at a late-night screening of A Separate Peace, one of the few movies back then with a homoerotic subtext. Instead of idealism, I saw fear in Mr. Baker’s eyes. He ducked his head, walked quickly around me and took pains to avoid me after the movie. This was a man I admired and with whom I identified, teaching me an unintended but vivid lesson: to be afraid.

The freedom to live your life, and to express your beliefs, is fundamental to dignified human existence. But for teachers, it must be balanced against the inherent restrictions of their chosen profession and the quality of the classroom experience.

It was right to revoke Loftis’ teaching certificate. Face it: a career in porn will limit your future options. Students should not be able to download video of their teacher having sex.

I also think it was right to return Buell to the classroom. He appears to be a dedicated and passionate teacher; high school kids can learn a lot from teachers with whom they disagree.

But I would have suspended him to demonstrate the seriousness of his transgression and required that he undertake sensitivity training, including attendance at local PFLAG meetings. If further investigation reveals a pattern of homophobia or religious activism in the classroom, or if he makes additional pronouncements that would make LGBT or non-Christian students uncomfortable, he should be removed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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