The OF Blog: Interesting link in an email from NEA

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Interesting link in an email from NEA

This bit from the National Education Association's general counsel reminds me why I never really go into detail about my teaching position (it's also why I don't use my last name in my blogger address, even if I sign under my full name when I have reviews/articles published elsewhere). Anyone want to weigh in on this?

Way back in 1974, California teacher and aspiring actor Lou Zivkovich famously was fired for posing nude in Playgirl magazine. His response, as reported by Newsweek, "I didn't murder anyone."

Nowadays, thanks to advances in technology, you don't even need a major publisher to get fired; just post your racy photos, sexually graphic writings, or wild party stories on a personal Web blog. You'll be amazed by how quickly tech-savvy students can disseminate your postings to their friends and your employer.

Here's a roundup of some of the recent horror stories:

In Virginia, high school art teacher Stephen Murmer was fired after posting photos of his "butt art" on the Web, which were viewed by scores of students. The budding artist applied paint to his posterior and genitalia, which he then pressed onto canvases. With the help of the ACLU, he sued the school district last fall claiming a violation of his First Amendment rights.

Band director Scott Davis from Broward County, Florida, was dismissed after school officials viewed his MySpace profile that included his musings about sex, drugs, and depression.

A Colorado English teacher lost her job after composing and posting sexually explicit poetry on her MySpace site. Police were even called in to investigate.

Nashville teacher Margaret Thompson was removed from teaching after posting "racy pictures" of herself, along with candid photos of her students, on her MySpace profile.

Florida middle school teacher John Bush was terminated because of "offensive" and "unacceptable " photos and information on his MySpace page.

Massachusetts teaching assistant and Massachusetts Teachers Association member Keath Driscoll was first suspended and then fired for his MySpace postings including "sexually suggestive" photographs, videos of drinking alcohol, and references to women as "whores." MTA took his case to arbitration and won almost a complete victory. In a decision dated March 24, 2008, the arbitrator ruled that Driscoll should not have been fired and ordered him reinstated with back pay, seniority, and benefits. The arbitrator did conclude, however, that Driscoll had engaged in misconduct that warranted some form of discipline, which he determined to be a three-day suspension.]

But the clueless award goes to Atlanta-area high school football coach Donald Shockley, who was forced to resign in early 2008 for storing on his school computer photos of his assistant principal dressed in lingerie and posing in sexually suggestive ways. The photos were discovered by a student whom Shockley had asked to work on his computer and who then posted the photos on the Internet and sent them to other students at the school.

In October 2007, reporters for The Columbus Dispatch conducted an investigation of MySpace profiles posted by Ohio teachers. The newspaper quoted one 25-year-old teacher bragging that she's "an aggressive freak in bed," "sexy," and "an outstanding kisser." Another teacher wrote on her page that she had recently "gotten drunk," "taken drugs," and "gone skinny-dipping."

In the wake of these reports, the Ohio Education Association urged all OEA members to remove any personal profiles they may have posted on MySpace or Facebook. The Association also warned members that such profiles "can be used as evidence in disciplinary proceedings," which could "affect not only a teacher's current job but his/her teaching license" as well.

But what about free speech? Don't school employees have the right, on their own time, to blog about their private lives without fear of losing their jobs? Probably not.

It's the general rule that school employees can be disciplined for off-duty conduct if the school district can show that the conduct had an adverse impact on the school or the teacher's ability to teach. And it wouldn't be too difficult to make that showing if the teacher's blog includes sexually explicit or other inappropriate content and is widely viewed by students.

As to a possible free speech claim, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that it was not a violation of the First Amendment for the City of San Diego to fire a police officer for posting a sexually explicit video of himself on the Internet. The unanimous Court said that such speech was "detrimental to the mission and functions of the employer."

And last year, a U.S. District Court ruled that a Connecticut school district's decision to fire a probationary teacher because of his postings to his MySpace page did not violate the teacher's First Amendments rights. The court called the online exchanges between the teacher and his students "inappropriate" and added that "such conduct could very well disrupt the learning atmosphere of the school."

There's an old lawyer's saw that goes something like this: Never put in writing anything that you wouldn't want read in open court or by your mother.

Maybe it's time for an updated adage: Never put in electronic form anything that you wouldn't want viewed by a million people, including your colleagues, students, and supervisors-and your mother.


Liviu said...

While I am not currently a teacher though I've been a math instructor for a while years ago, I also have a very "regulated" work license and I completely agree with your post and follow reasonable precautions too.

Sticking to talking about books which is what I enjoy the most anyway and using first name only, though as in your case my reviews on FBC are fully signed, is just common sense...

Lsrry said...

Sad that I have to do it (and that you have to as well), but there are people who are very eager to turn in another for whatever reason. Coincidentally, I lectured today on the House Un-American Activities Committee and the paranoia that existed in the 1950s, where neighbors would turn in each other for whatever was meant to be heard in private.

Liviu said...

I don't know - as a parent, do I want a teacher for my kid who brags of whatever stuff was in the post above?

Do I want a doctor like that? Do I want a lawyer like that?

It's a tricky issue especially where children are concerned, and while adults should be able to do whatever they want in privacy, there is some stuff that should remain there.

I agree that writing fiction is writing *fiction* and should not have an impact on anything and same with any kind of political speech, though again think if a teacher would post racist or misogynistic stuff and the hubbub that would result...

But bragging about getting drunk, sexual feats, posting inappropriate pictures are quite different and have less to do with free speech and more with "character"

Elena said...

I have never worked in the education field, but I've seen at least one article that discussed ANY kind of professional environment could take "inappropriate" postings on a site like MySpace into consideration when hiring or giving an internal evaluation. To me it's pretty much common sense that if you use your real name or give your fake internet name to collegues, you're inviting everyone you know to look at your online activities. So either keep them clean or keep them anonymous.

Ironically, the "would you want your mother to see it?" line wouldn't work for me. She is the least judgmental person I know, and anyway I have yet to rival some of her antics from her younger years and at this point probably never will....

Lsrry said...


The day I talk about my relationships and sexual likes (beyond a mere statement that I'm a straight Irish/Cherokee male) is the day I shoot myself. And since suicide is a mortal sin for Catholics, fat chance of that happening! :P

But yes, it really is a "character" thing, which is why I didn't try to argue against those points raised in the article. Sometimes, it's just frustrating realizing that in some places, me using any profanity (almost never in the ad hominem sense) or noting that I'm a Catholic convert would be grounds for me to be dismissed. That's why I err on the side of caution here quite a bit, never mentioning by name any of the schools I've taught at in the past. But I know some of my students have read this blog, since one discovered the interview I did back in October at Bibliophile Stalker, where my full name was given. That's why I've been even more close-mouthed than usual about certain things, things I'll talk about at length in a few months, if at all.


Those are rules I try to live by as well, although my mother is certainly more "clean" in regards to past events than I am. But what I've done and what I've failed to do is between me and God, never between me and thousands of readers! :P

RobB said...

My wife is a teacher and is very adamant about putting herself in the internet/public light - she doesn't have a Facebook/MySpace/Blog or anything of that nature.

Neil Richard said...

As a teacher, I'm sure you could share some juicy stories about students, parents, teachers, and administrators. As a spouse to a teacher, I get to hear all those stories. Most are sad and scary, a few are funny, and some are just bizarre.

But I think what really irks me is that some of those teachers in the article didn't really harm themselves or others (or property). In other words, they didn't break the law. But some teachers, including my wife, have a morality clause in their contract. Which means the school system can fire you for doing something immoral. But they don't define what that is. So the teacher that's in a long term relationship, unmarried, and pregnant, can't tell her students she's pregnant. And the teacher that teaches her own child to movie hop is allowed to continue to teach. I think what we really need is some common sense.

Oh, and the whole "would you let your mother or grandmother read this" is a good rule to live by. I've been burned a few times and now try my best to adhere to it.

Anonymous said...

Did the NEA copy and paste this drivel from electronic news clips?
An art teacher fired for posting artwork and English teacher fired for publishing poetry? Both are protected speech.
Simpson should have broken these examples into three cautionary tales.
The first report should inform teachers that they surrender their constitutional rights at the door. A warning to art teachers not to create art, science teachers not to mention intelligent design and English teachers not to write anything down.
The second could caution that documenting inappropriate behavior electronically may result in almost a complete victory from employers -- with back pay.
And lastly, we should have been warned that the Office of General Counsel assembles neatoday reports from one or two keyword searches.

May said...

You say: "Never put in electronic form anything that you wouldn't want viewed by a million people, including your colleagues, students, and supervisors-and your mother."

Or, of you do, lock your site (as I do).

Add to Technorati Favorites