Florida teacher suspended for Facebook entry opposing NY gay-marriage law

posted at 1:25 pm on August 19, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

Do teachers in public-school systems have a “special ethics” code that prevents them from publicly speaking on policy issues?  Lake County Schools in Florida suspended Jerry Buell, a high-school teacher with a reportedly impeccable record for 22 years, for posting his opposition to New York’s new gay-marriage law, and will start termination proceedings against him.  The case will test First Amendment rights and encroaching political correctness:

Jerry Buell, a veteran American history teacher at Mount Dora High School, was removed from his teaching duties as school officials in Lake County investigate allegations that what he posted was biased towards homosexuals.

“We took the allegations seriously,” said Chris Patton, a communication officer with Lake County Schools. “All teachers are bound by a code of special ethics (and) this is a code ethics violation investigation.”

Patton said the school system received a complaint on Tuesday about something Buell had written last July when New York legalized same sex unions. On Wednesday, he was temporarily suspended from the classroom and reassigned.

So what did Buell write?

The first was posted on July 25 at 5:43 p.m. as he was eating dinner and watching the evening news.

“I’m watching the news, eating dinner when the story about New York okaying same-sex unions came on and I almost threw up,” he wrote. “And now they showed two guys kissing after their announcement. If they want to call it a union, go ahead. But don’t insult a man and woman’s marriage by throwing it in the same cesspool of whatever. God will not be mocked. When did this sin become acceptable?”

Three minutes later, Buell posted another comment:

“By the way, if one doesn’t like the most recently posted opinion based on biblical principles and God’s laws, then go ahead and unfriend me. I’ll miss you like I miss my kidney stone from 1994. And I will never accept it because God will never accept it. Romans chapter one.”

The school district suspended Buell, who had been the school’s Teacher of the Year in 2010-11, because they are concerned that gay students might be “frightened or intimidated” in his class.  That’s a pretty thin rationale for punishing someone over what appears to be more or less mainstream opposition to the gay-marriage law.  Even saying the above in a classroom would be a thin rationale for disciplinary action, unless school districts will be taking action against all teachers who talk politics in the classroom, and a Facebook posting is not a classroom speech.

If school districts are worried about hate speech outside the classroom, wouldn’t we be demanding that these Wisconsin teachers get fired?

Wonder how many of these were talking about the Wisconsin PEU reform in their classrooms?  A few of them brought their students out to protest, as I recall.  Should they be suspended and fired, too?  Isn’t this “intimidating and frightening” to conservative-minded students in Wisconsin?

Teachers are American citizens with same rights as every other American citizen.  They get to have opinions and express them publicly.  The school can and should control classroom conduct, and should butt out of other speech entirely.  And here’s a lesson about free speech and the Constitution that Lake County Schools apparently hasn’t grasped: there is no freedom from offense built into the First Amendment.  We don’t curtail speech on the off chance it might hurt someone’s feelings.  If we did, we wouldn’t have any free political speech at all.  And I would make the same argument in support of a teacher suspended from a public school for offering Facebook support for New York’s gay-marriage bill.

Update: Some clumsy wording in the opening paragraph made it seem like Buell was 22 years old.  He’s been a teacher for 22 years.  I’ve rewritten that passage.

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