Anti-gay teachers and the limits of the First Amendment

In Union, New Jersey a teacher Viki Knox, disgusted with her school’s involvement in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender History Month took to her Facebook page to say the following:

Homosexuality is a perverted spirit that has existed from the beginning of creation. The word of God refers to it often. That’s if you believe the Word to be truly God’s intended blueprint for his people. I have friends and loved ones who are practicing/living as homosexuals. Yes I love can care about them. We hug and exchange gifts. We have family dinners. But how they live and their actions, behaviors -CHOICES are against the nature and character of God! Do I tell me so? Yes, of course. Do I treat them bad? If course not! Jesus never did that to ANYONE he meant. He spoke to them of their situation and ofered them life eternal. He didn’t say it was okay but we’ve all sinned and come short if God’s will for us daily. That’s why we Christians true followers pray, repent, and spend time with Christ daily. The Word of God instructs us to die daily to our flesh-meaning our will. What we want; what feels good to us; what we like; what we can rationalize and justify. I do not pretend to know ALL things. Nor do I pretend not to have biases, failings and faults. But I know sin and it breeds like cancer!

Union is not South Orange/Maplewood where one out of four families consist of two Mommies or daddies. (I’m exaggerating) Why parade your unnatural immoral behaviors before the rest of us? AND YOU ARE WRONG! I/WE DO NOT HAVE TO ACCEPT ANYTHING, ANYONE. ANY BEHAVIOR OR ANY CHOICES! I DO NOT HAVE TO TOLERATE ANYTHING OTHERS WISH TO DO. I DO HAVE TO LOVE AND SPEAK AND DO WHAT’S RIGHT!

When I was in the 1st grade I attended Wyoming Elementary School in Millburn, New Jersey, not more than 5 minutes from Viki Knox’s school in nearby Union. I was the only black student in my grade. A classmate asked my teacher what a ni**er was. The teacher told him “A ni**er is a black person.” The little boy proceeded to take this information he got from our teacher and he called me a ni**er for the rest of the day. I didn’t know the significance of that word at 6 years old but I knew I didn’t like it and that I was made physically uncomfortable by him calling me that.

Even though I didn’t have any idea of the historical significance of the term at 6, I knew that I didn’t want to be called a ni**er. I went home in tears and told my mother what happened. My mother had the teacher fired. Since it’s the first in my life which I vividly remember, I consider this to be my first life experience with overt bigotry and racism.

Teachers have a very unique role in our society. Teachers have the privilege of teaching and influencing young people in a profound way. There is a legal question surrounding whether or not teachers have the freedom to express their viewpoints publicly, no matter how controversial — and this becomes especially complicated in the age of social media.

The township where Knox works has chosen to suspend her and she has been appointed a union lawyer. At a recent school board meeting, there were both supporters of Knox and her detractors protesting, and a heavy police presence. Knox’s supporters believe she has the right to speak freely about her personal beliefs.

But there is no First Amendment right to say whatever you want and keep your job. The school has the right to fire this teacher for her bigotry as my school district had the right to fire my teacher for her bigotry and teaching of bigotry to my classmate. You have the right to say what you want, but you don’t have the right to work as a teacher if the school district feels your comments impede your performance or are inappropriate. Teachers elsewhere have been fired for anti-semetic comments and others have been suspended for anti-gay Facebook posts.

In this case, Viki Knox has the right to believe whatever she wants. She has the right to follow her own religion and if she feels that religion teachers her — not to love every person, but to judge them for what she calls “choices,” then so be it.

But she does not have the right to have a job as a teacher. Viki Knox should exercise her freedom to seek a different line of work.

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18 Comments

  1. Posted October 20, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the general gist. But I am a little uncomfortable with the notion that an opinion expressed privately somehow disqualifies someone from his or her job.

    (I know: Facebook might not actually be a private forum, but bear with me.)

    Has anyone complained about the teacher’s courses or teachings in the classroom? Has anyone felt discriminated against by this teacher, in school on on school business? I presume not.

    So the question is this: can a teacher express any opinion, anywhere, that goes against the school district’s official position? Or anything against the government, for that matter?

    Frankly, I don’t know the answer. But I would not like teachers to be dismissed because they logged on to a anti-abortion/pro-life website at home, for example. Or because they are registered Republicans.

    Again, I don’t know where to draw the line. But the example in the OP, for me, does not cross any line.

    • Posted October 20, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      Except Facebook isn’t private (or else parents wouldn’t have seen the comments), and she’s not being fired for logging onto a web site. Ms. Lake publicly announced that she feels justified, even compelled to, openly condemn homosexuality. If your child were gay, would you want Ms. Lake teaching him or her?

      • Posted October 20, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

        Katie,

        The point is not what the teacher might or might not way to my child. From what I read, Ms Lake never expressed her opinions in the classroom.

        The point is this: should Ms Lake be allowed to express her opinions in a private place (I am deliberately fudging the publicness of Facebook).

        Turn it round 180 degrees for a moment. If you were a teacher and believed in pro-choice, should you be sacked if you expressed such an opinion on Facebook? And if you never said anything about it in class? Conceivably, such opinions might shock some parents or students,

    • Posted October 21, 2011 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      I agreed with Smiley but I went to the board meeting last Tuesday. There were a number of students there that I spoke to that indicated that they had been discriminated against by Ms. Knox, and others both gay and straight that said that they have heard her voice her antigay opininions in the school. Now I don’t know if these kids were being honest but I think that between the rant on FB and these kids statements that she cannot seperate her prejudices from doing her job properly. The schoolboard needs to look at her actions in the classroom and at work very carefully to be sure that she is abiding by the schools policies and not spreading her personal opinions. As a side note one of the gay kids I spoke with said to me that after all this she will no longer feel safe at school. She said “They tell us to go to the teachers if we feel threatened but knowing how Ms. Knox feels about me, how do I know that the teachers will help me.”

  2. Posted October 20, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    I agree, but teaching is such a thankless profession sometimes. It is so crucial, but people rarely even recognize teachers until they do something awful like you described. They are invisible until they really do something unsavory, or at least make someone upset.

    This from the son of an elementary school teacher. I’m sorry you had to go through what you did.

    • Posted October 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      This is also not to imply that I agreed at all with the teacher’s behavior. I agree with you.

  3. Posted October 20, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    As a (currently unemployed) teacher, I learned one thing–keep your mouth shut. I do not share my political or social beliefs with students but instead encourage them to think. During the 2008 election, my middle school kids repeatedly asked me who I voted for. They tried catching me off guard. Every single time, I smiled and pointed to my silly “Snoopy For President” button and said, “I voted for Snoopy!” Then I explained to them that my right to a secret ballot is one I treasure in this country, etc.

    I never allowed slurs. I told a Mexican kid off for calling his friend “n***er.” “He knows I’m joking?” I turned to the friend. “Do you like it when he calls you the n-word?” “Not really.” Lesson learned. The kid apologized to his friend because he honestly hadn’t known. That’s MY JOB as a teacher. Viki Knox dropped the ball on this one.

    Oh, and I would expect better communication skills from a teacher.

    • Posted October 20, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      As another currently unemployed teacher, I totally agree. I didn’t tell my students who I voted for, and I don’t make political statements. I strive to make my students think, but it’s not a teacher’s job to tell them what to think.

      On another note as a currently unemployed ENGLISH teacher, this woman’s grammar horrifies me, and I think that I’d have an issue with her qualifications as well as her bigotry, both are abhorrent.

  4. Posted October 20, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Also, let’s all hope that Ms. Lake does not teach grammar.

  5. Posted October 20, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Smiley and Nazza. I despise this teacher’s point of view, but I am also not happy with the idea of firing anyone just because they shared their crappy viewpoints on Facebook. I feel this way especially about teachers, who are often still (and historically have been) held to a different standard of social and moral behavior than people of other professions, based on the idea that because they teach kids they should be more saintly than lawyers, doctors, etc. That’s a nice idea, but I don’t think it’s true or fair. Teachers are regular people too, and being in charge of kids education shouldn’t strip them of free speech rights any more than folks of other professions.

    So… again, while I loathe what this teacher said, I think we have to be able to separate what she said on Facebook from what she says in class. This is different from the terrible experience Zerlina had with the teacher who created a racist environment in the classroom–nothing here happened in the classroom, at least not as reported in the OP.

    Still–it sucks that she said this stuff, and thinks it, and that people like this even exist. But they do, and I hesitate to call for them to be fired just because they say how they feel. I wouldn’t want them to have that kind of power over me.

    ~Amanda

  6. Posted October 20, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    I very much understand and appreciate that teaching can be thankless and teachers’ efforts are all too frequently taken for granted, but I also absolutely understand and agree with the post. In the case of what happened to you (the author), while it’s possible that there wasn’t necessarily ill intent behind what the teacher told the boy, the lack of context (“a ni**er is a mean/derogatory name for a black person that you should not call people”) was completely careless and insensitive, and for that I definitely think the teacher deserved to be fired. In the case of the teacher you quote, it isn’t that she isn’t entitled to her own beliefs, or even to air them on a semi-public forum like Facebook. It’s that when she is in a position where children are looking up to her, being influenced by what she says, probably even confiding in her, she’s probably not going to be able to optimally do her job if she secretly (or not so much) thinks less of certain students, or if her ability to empathize is overridden by SIN and IMMORAL and VILE screaming in her conscience. I just hope that news of her case isn’t crushing for any LGBT students she has who may have actually liked and admired her without knowing how she really felt about them.

  7. Posted October 20, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    I totally do not agree with this woman. She’s a bigot.

    However, when she can lose her job for something she said at home, in private where does it end? If a parent over hears a teacher say something disagreeable at the grocery store to her kids, can she be fired? If a teacher works for a political party that school administrators don’t like, can she be fired? Teachers are private citizens. They have all the rights afforded to any other American in their private lives.

    It’s different if she was forcing this diatribe down students throats at school or saying this at her job.

  8. Posted October 20, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Her rights to free speech are in no way infringed upon.

    However, we ought to have some discussion about the CONSEQUENCES free speech has for those in the teaching profession.

    First, what is the definition of an objectionable position? Consider that teaching is, in general, a highly localized position, and is influenced by the community that it takes place in. A teacher saying that they don’t believe Jesus is the son of G-d could be an objectionable statement to some people, and could certainly alienate some students or families. The same is true of a variety of moral and ethical positions, many of which are often contentious.

    Without a standard definition of “objectionable”, teachers are subject to the capricious natures of the communities in which they teach, which hardly sounds fair.

    Second, we need to discuss how an objectionable position impacts teaching. Do teachers have the right to a private life? Are they allowed to express objectionable opinions in private, and does it matter that those things were expressed in private?

    This position obviously was made public, but what if it had not been? Should a teacher be allowed to privately believe that homosexuality is sinful?

    Obviously this is an extreme case, but what about other ethical positions? A decent chunk of folks believe that eating animals is immensely cruel, and some think it’s sinful. Should they be allowed to have these positions? Should they be allowed to express them?

    What we have here is a significant dilemma, and an ongoing one: teachers have a position of tremendous import in society, but the role of a teacher is often ill-defined, or differs from area to area. This means that teachers are often asked to never screw up, without full knowledge of what constitutes screwing up.

    That’s a tough job, and the least we can do is let teachers know where they stand in regard to their opinions and expression.

  9. Posted October 20, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    As someone who has taught (and would love to teach again should the government finally realize how vital education is), teachers give up some of their right to privacy and I’m not debating whether that is right or wrong, but it is a fact. What teachers say matter. When I was teaching, I strove to make no politically motivated statements in a public forum. I didn’t post articles on Facebook and I didn’t tell my students who I voted for. I didn’t disagree with parents who would make comments to me about different policies…it wasn’t my place. A teacher is meant to make students think, not influence what they think, and I didn’t want to risk having my politics influence them, or becoming a focus instead of their learning.

    I see how some are upset that a teacher’s comments outside of school can put her job in jeopardy, but these comments were not made to a friend in her home, or even someone she was out shopping with…they were made on Facebook. They were meant to be read, and that’s why I think she should be responsible for the fall out from them. They had the power to influence her students by the nature of them being not private.

  10. Posted October 20, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    People losing their jobs for something they posted on facebook is bad, bad news for each and every one of us. That is only amplified by the fact that in this case it’s a teacher, among the least compensated and most vulnerable to this kind of behavior.

  11. Posted October 20, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    As bigoted and ignorant as Knox’s views are, doesn’t the 1st amendment protect bigoted speech too? And since Knox worked at a public school, didn’t the school violate her constitutional rights? On the other hand, would you support a school firing a teacher for expressing atheist or feminist views on Facebook under free speech grounds even though such views might offend such parents?

  12. Posted October 20, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    I wonder when she chose to be straight.

    Anyway. This is a tricky one. On one hand, yes, she posted her bigotry-fueled, heterosexist diatribe on her own time, as a private citizen, and she has every right to her opinion (as much as you (overall) and I disagree with it). However, she posted it in such a way that others — namely the parents of her students — could see it, and if any of those parents have LGBTQ children, they have every right to be concerned regarding whether or not she’ll treat them the same as she would any straight student.

    I think what it comes down to is if her views ultimately affect her ability to do her job and represent her school.

  13. Posted October 21, 2011 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    I was fired once for a private opinion that I put on a private blog that didn’t identify me personally but I had mentioned, in passing, where I worked and my employer was upset with the opinion I had being associated with the business so it happens all the time.
    As far as this Facebook post goes I’m not sure what upsets me more, the opinion or that an educator wrote her opinion so poorly. It’s likely I’m being a bit snobby about this but I think the public voicing of this opinion as well as how poorly it was elocuted would have both been reasons for dismissing this teacher.

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