I am a political partisan -- like you hadn't already figured that out.
But I'm also a teacher -- and I recognize one of my most important duties is to teach my students to be good citizens of a democratic republic. That means critically thinking about ideas and issues, drawing one's on conclusions and respecting the rights of others to reach and express different ones.
Last Friday was dress-down day at Charles Carroll High School in Port Richmond - a day for students to leave their uniforms at home and wear whatever they liked.
One young woman chose to wear a shirt showing her support for Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy. Her geometry teacher didn't like it, the girl's father said on a radio call-in show on IQ 106.9 FM today.
The teacher allegedly told the girl to take off the shirt, saying it was like wearing a Ku Klux Klan sheet. The teacher allegedly threatened to use a marker to cross out Romney's name and that of Rep. Paul Ryan, his running mate. The teacher also allegedly tried to throw the student out of class.
The teacher also allegedly said that Carroll was "a Democratic school."
I'm stunned -- or I would be if I didn't have a teacher back in high school try that same sort of crap with me for wearing a Reagan button into his class when I was a senior. I looked him in the eye, called him a "communist" and dared him to write me up as I shoved my way past him and into class. Heck, I wanted to be written up -- and I wanted to make sure his sorry @$$ was fired. Unfortunately, he didn't have the guts to try to send me to the office, and continued working at the school for at least another 20 years.
The experience has stuck with me for the last three decades, and still influences my pedagogical viewpoint. This year, for the first time, I've been given the opportunity to teach American Government, and I've made every effort to play it straight down the middle politically. My first test was on the first day of school, when one of my students made a very "in your face" comment about the presidential election and another made a point of disclosing that he had taken advantage of Obama's DREAM amnesty program. They led to a great discussion -- and both have since told me they love the fact that I give their class the freedom to disagree with each other and with me and don't try to tell them what to think. Having just watched the debate, I'm sort of looking forward to seeing what happens in class tomorrow.
So needless to say, this story from Philadelphia upsets me on a really profound level. This is not merely unprofessional conduct by a teacher who had no business bringing up politics in his classroom -- it is unAmerican conduct by a public employee trying to stifle the rights of of a citizen through an abuse of his authority. To make the claim that support of a major party candidate is the equivalent of racism is disgusting, to declare a public school to be a partisan enclave is unethical, and to threaten to physically violate a student in order to silence his or her constitutionally protected speech is utterly beyond the pale. If there is any truth to this accusation, the teacher needs to be fired by the district and his teaching credentials ought to be revoked.
And what is my basis for suggesting such severe measures against this thug who has disgraced my profession? It is the words written by a Supreme Court justice in the middle of the Second World War, defending the right of students to be free from official coercion to act contrary to their sincerely held beliefs.
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.
Just as it was impermissible to force Jehovah's Witness children to salute the flag in contradiction of their religious beliefs, so too is it impermissible to compel a student to be silent about so important a matter as the impending presidential election. Just as the school officials of West Virginia exceeded their authority under our Constitution by seeking to enforce uniformity of action and belief upon those children, so too did this Pennsylvania teacher. Those principles are so strongly established and so clearly taught in education programs around the country that this teacher cannot legitimately claim to be ignorant of them -- and in what may be the most ironic of twists, this teacher turned political commissar has likely run afoul of the statute commonly known as the Ku Klux Klan Act by acting under color of authority to violate the Constitutional rights of his student. It is therefore my sincere hope that criminal charges are forthcoming as well.
UPDATE: A more recent article makes it clear the teacher is female, not male -- sorry for the use of the male pronoun above. Also, the teacher in question apparently stormed out of the school office when the student and her parents refused to accept her claim that her words were a "joke". In my book, that makes termination even more appropriate, given that she bullied the student and then has doubled-down by trying to paint her victim and her victims parents as the bad guys in this situation.