The firing of Brooke Harris: a teachable moment about free speech
Last month, Michigan teacher Brooke Harris was fired for allegedly helping students organize a 'hoodie' fundraiser for the family of Trayvon Martin. By all means, give Harris her job back. But let’s also support the free-speech rights of all of our teachers, not just the ones we agree with.
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And they can’t do that if we prevent them from taking political positions themselves, as the famed civil libertarian Alexander Meiklejohn argued in 1938. “No one can teach an art which he is forbidden to practice,” Meiklejohn explained. “Slaves cannot teach freedom.”Skip to next paragraph
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But propagandists cannot teach it either, Meiklejohn warned. So while teachers had the right to express their own views, he argued, they also had the duty not to impose these beliefs in the classroom; their job was to teach how to think, not what to think.
“The teacher-advocate wants thinking done as the only proper way of arriving at conclusions,” Meiklejohn wrote. “The propagandist wants believing done, no matter what the road by which the belief is reached.”
So the real question isn’t whether a teacher should be able to articulate political beliefs in class, but why. If Jillian Caruso was simply trying to sway her students in favor of George W. Bush, her principal was right to intervene. But if she was attempting to teach them about Mr. Bush – and to form their own opinion of him – than she had every right to share hers.
And that brings us back to Brooke Harris, who says that her students’ fundraising idea – to wear “hoodies” to school, in honor of Trayvon Martin’s garb on the day he died – came out of an editorial-writing assignment about the tragedy. As the students discussed it, it would be helpful to know whether Harris challenged their views. Or did she simply lead them to adopt hers?
Many students in the class were African-American, like Harris, and some of them reportedly had been stopped by police who thought they looked “suspicious” – the same term that George Zimmerman used to describe Trayvon Martin. All the more reason for their teacher to raise tough questions. When is it OK for police to suspect someone, and when is it not?
I would also hope that any such discussion would analyze Florida’s “stand your ground” law, and whether Zimmerman was acting within its bounds. And in America, remember, you’re presumed innocent until proven guilty. Shouldn’t Harris have also presented Zimmerman’s side of the story, so that students could arrive at their own conclusions?
I don’t know whether that happened. Indeed, any sentiment on behalf of Zimmerman might have provoked outrage from the same people who are now rallying to Harris’s side. And in the current environment, the outcome would likely be the same: She’d be fired.
So by all means, let’s make sure Brooke Harris gets to return to her classroom. But let’s resolve to support the free-speech rights of all of our teachers, not just the ones we agree with.
Let’s also insist that they entertain every point of view, especially those they don’t share. If we muzzle our teachers, they really can’t teach democracy. And if they simply teach their own beliefs, our students won’t learn it.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press).