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.

Southern Poverty Law Center via The Oakland Press/AP Photo
Brooke Harris, a teacher in Pontiac, Mich., alleges she was fired for helping her students organize a fundraiser for the Trayvon Martin family. The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., has called for Ms. Harris to be reinstated, and it provided this undated photo of Harris. Op-ed contributor Jonathan Zimmerman writes that a teacher ought to be able to express personal beliefs if the effort is to teach, not to sway, students.

The Trayvon Martin case has claimed a new martyr. The first one was Martin, the Florida teenager gunned down on Feb. 26 by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. Now there’s Michigan teacher Brooke Harris, who was fired last month, allegedly for helping her 8th-grade students organize a fundraiser for Martin’s family.

Ms. Harris quickly became a cause célèbre on the Internet, where more than 200,000 people have signed a petition calling for her reinstatement. As the petition correctly noted, dismissals of this type “create an atmosphere of fear” in American schools. “We will not tolerate the silencing of our nation’s best teachers,” the petition declared.

But we do tolerate it, and increasingly so. Harris’s firing comes at a historic low point for teacher freedom in the United States. And most of us have stood idly by, because we don’t really believe that teachers should have freedom. Instead, we want them to echo our own views.

Consider the case of Jillian Caruso, who was fired from her Massapequa Park, N.Y., elementary school after her principal objected to a picture of George W. Bush that she displayed in her classroom during Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. A member of the Republican National Committee, Ms. Caruso alleged that the principal – who was married to a Democratic state assemblyman – violated her First Amendment rights to free speech and association.

Caruso’s dismissal generated a few columns and blog posts from outraged Republicans. But from Democrats? Not a peep. Nor did I hear much protest – from any side of the aisle – when a federal jury ruled against Caruso in 2007.

In instructing the jury, the presiding judge emphasized that Caruso had freedom of speech in her capacity as a citizen, but not as a teacher. So she was free to support President Bush on her own time – and on her own dime – but not while she was in school.

Here the judge invoked the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos, which said that public employees have no First Amendment rights when they are speaking as part of their “official duties.” The state hires employees to deliver a certain message, the court said, so it can also penalize those who deviate from it.

Since then, federal courts have used Garcetti to uphold the removal of an Indiana teacher who told her students she opposed the war in Iraq, and of an Ohio teacher who asked her class to report on examples from the American Library Association’s 100 “most frequently challenged” books. “The right to free speech...does not extend to the in-class curricular speech of teachers in primary and secondary schools,” the Ohio ruling flatly declared.

That’s a huge problem for anyone who cares about American democracy. Teachers do not simply work “for” the government; they’re supposed to help students learn how to function within it. So they also need to model the skills and habits that democracy demands, especially the ability to analyze and evaluate different points of view.

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.”

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).

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.