Teachers, like the billion other social media users in the world, have a right to post comments on their personal social media accounts. However, when it comes to posting their thoughts on controversial topics such as abortion, gay rights, or immigration, those rights are increasingly coming under greater scrutiny.
“I think anybody has the right to use social media, whether the post is controversial or not,” art teacher Jane Somers said. “I think what matters more is who you allow to see what you post on your account, but at the same time teachers should be intelligent enough to be able to moderate what they post. I know once I posted an article by a pastor and there was a parent of an old student who wasn’t of the same religion and they were upset and threatened to try to get me fired.”
According to the article “How Far Should Public Agencies Go to Restrict Employees’ Social Media Posts?” by Terry L. Jones, a teacher in Louisiana was called into the principal’s office regarding a post she had uploaded to her Facebook account that criticized the Common Core curriculum being taught at schools. The principal then “ordered her to remove the post from her home computer early that morning in September 2014.” She was instructed to “no longer express her personal opinions regarding education on social media.” The teacher filed a lawsuit against the school district that is still working its way through the courts.
“Teachers have First Amendment rights, and controversy is in the eyes of the beholder,” Principal Bill Atterberry said. “In the three years I’ve been here, I can’t comment on any teacher or anything theoretical.”
To what extent teachers are protected by their First Amendment rights is a serious question that leaves many teachers wary of openly displaying their opinions and ideas. In the article “Social Networking Nightmare” by Mike Simpson, he states, “teacher free speech rights are fairly limited: their speech is protected only if they speak out as citizens on ‘matters of public concern’ and their speech doesn’t disrupt the school.”
However, it is hard to determine whether or not someone aims a post at a specific person. For example, if teachers were to post opinions on an issue such as gay rights, could they be censured for posting ideas that others take offense to or would they be covered by the law because they were speaking as a citizen about a public concern?
According to the article “New Jersey Teacher Fired Over Anti-Gay Facebook Rant Scores Legal Victory to Get Job Back” by Thomas Zambito, New Jersey school teacher Jenye Knox was fired from her position for posting an anti-gay post on her Facebook page in 2011. The post concerned a billboard the school put up marking Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Month. Knox posted “I do not have to tolerate anything others wish to do. I do have to love and speak and do what’s right.”
Within three months after posting her comment, Knox was suspended without pay. In 2013 Knox’s attorney helped her get her job back.
“I understand a teacher is an agent of the state but she’s also an individual,” said Knox’s lawyer Demetrios Stratis in Zambito’s article. “This is what this country was founded on. It’s not like she was a teacher standing up in the middle of class and saying I believe in ‘this, this and this.’”
“I think that teachers having social media is a personal decision,” chemistry teacher Jennifer Prins said. “Social media isn’t a part of a teacher’s job description, so as long as it doesn’t affect their job performance, I don’t see any reason why teachers shouldn’t have it.”
People argue that there is a fine line separating teachers personal lives and their work lives; however, when it comes to social media the line tends to get blurry.