August 25, 2011

First Amendment Prevails In Florida Teacher Case!

Agree or disagree with what Jerry Buell wrote on Facebook regarding the legalization of gay marriage in New York (my position here), the specter of schools policing and punishing outside-of-school teacher speech on issues of public importance and debate is both offensive and frightening to this teacher. I made my position on the matter crystal clear in my post on his suspension last week.

Well, it looks like Mr. Buell has prevailed, with the school district acknowledging that there is no legitimate basis for taking action against him for the expression of his opinion online on his own time (and in this case, during the summer when school was not even in session).

The Lake County School Board has completed their investigation of Jerry Buell, last year's "Teacher of the Year" at Mount Dora High School, who was recently suspended from the classroom for a comment he made on his personal Facebook page expressing his disapproval of legalized same-sex marriage in New York.

Buell is now back in the classroom. "I'm not going on Facebook again," Buell told FOX 35 on Wedneday.

Buell has been reinstated by the school district after he posted statements on Facebook. He wrote, "I was watching the news, eating dinner when the story about New York okaying same-sex unions came on and I almost threw up."

He continued, "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."

Like I said -- I certainly wouldn't have said things the way he did, but I certainly respect his right to say them free of government retaliation. Unfortunately, it looks like the would-be censors have won a victory of sorts, given Mr. Buell's announced intention to cease exercising his Constitutional rights on Facebook (and, I would guess, other online media).

Furthermore, the more I read about the case the more offended I am that the district even felt that an investigation was in order, much less a suspension and the resulting publicity. Why? Because of the source of the complaint.

A 2002 Mount Dora High School graduate who never had Buell as a teacher, complained to the Board about Buell’s Facebook comments.

Someone who had never set foot in Mr. Buell's classroom and whose connection to the school itself was attenuated by the passage of time was permitted to threaten Buell's career and destroy his reputation based upon nothing more than being offended by what a teacher at his alma mater had said outside of school. That is shocking, and raises questions about the professionalism and ethics of those school officials who chose to handle the case in this manner.

Why am I so outraged? Easy -- this case is not merely an attack upon Mr. Buell. It is also an attack upon me. It is an attack upon gay teachers who choose to speak out upon gay issues in their private time. It is an attack upon my fellow teachers who write letters to the editor of local newspapers around the country. If Jerry Buell's teaching career had been ended, we all would have found our First Amendment rights sharply curtailed.

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