Newark principals sue over suspensions

Five Newark school principals suspended for speaking out against the superintendent’s school reorganization plan have filed a free-speech lawsuit reports the Newark Star-Ledger.

New Jersey took over the troubled district. Superintendent Cami Anderson’s turnaround plan is very controversial.

Four principals — H. Grady James of Hawthorne Avenue School, Tony Motley of Bragaw Avenue School, Dorothy Handfield of Belmont Runyan School and Deneen Washington of Maple Avenue School — were suspended with pay Jan. 17, two days after they spoke at a community meeting at a Newark church intended to oppose Anderson’s One Newark plan.

The principals work at schools affected by the plan. Hawthorne and Bragaw are targeted for use by charter schools and Maple is set to become an early childhood learning center. Belmont Runyon has been designated a “renew” school, which means new leadership will be installed and teachers will be asked to reapply for their positions. Brown’s school, Ivy Hill, is designated for “redesign.”

The fifth principal, Lisa Brown of Ivy Hill Elementary, was suspended for not heeding the district’s ban on Daryn Martin, the head of Ivy Hill’s parent-teacher organization who was escorted from the school Jan. 15 after he protested the removal of fliers he posted that were critical of the reorganization plan.

Motley, James and Handfield are now back to work at their schools. Brown and Washington will be reassigned.

“The school district has violated their rights and we’d like a judge to say that,” attorney Robert Pickett said. “Public employees have a right to talk about issues of public concern.”

Do principals have a right to oppose district policy and keep their jobs?

FIRE: 59% of colleges restrict free speech

Nearly 60 percent of U.S. colleges and universities restrict free speech rights, according to Spotlight on Speech Codes 2014 by FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education).

The good news: For the sixth consecutive year, however, this percentage has dropped.

The federal government is sending confusing messages about the relationship between harassment and free speech, the report notes.

The right to nonpolitical homework

Can a teacher require students to be activists? There’s a First Amendment right to nonpolitical homework, concludes the New York Times‘ ethics columnist.

A parent wrote:

For my daughter’s high-school biology class, the students are required to take a public action addressing climate change. They have a wide range of options of what they can do: write a letter to a public official, design a website, develop a public-service announcement or organize a flash mob. They are required to submit proof that they presented their work publicly — that is, that they mailed the letter, launched the website, etc. Is it ethical for the school to require students to speak publicly on a specific issue? Or even to give extra credit for doing so? Does the students’ right to free speech also give them the right not to speak publicly on this topic? KATHARINE LONDON, CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

The teacher can “teach climate change as hard science” without “universal community support,” responds the ethicist. But requiring public support for a divisive idea is not science.

Asking students to create the groundwork for a presentation (letter, website, flash mob) is not unethical, because it’s mostly a way to make students investigate a subject in a less conventional, more practical context. They will understand the ideas with greater depth. It’s a creative means for self-directed education. But forcing them to publicly advocate for that idea is something else entirely. That’s an extension of civics. And if a civics instructor demanded all her students campaign in public for a controversial environmental view that she personally supported, it’s pretty easy to see how this would be a problem. Here again, the issue is not about the subjective accuracy of the concept; it’s about forcing someone without agency to serve as a conduit.

The biology teacher might respond that students could “address” climate change by writing a letter saying it’s all hooey. That would be a brave student. But, even if students were given a real choice about what opinions to voice, mandatory activism is creepy.

And . . . organize a flash mob?

College student files free-speech lawsuit

Modesto Junior College (MJC) student Robert Van Tuinen has filed a free-speech lawsuit against the Yosemite Community College District and MJC administrators. Van Tuinen, an Army veteran, was prevented from handing out copies of the Constitution — on Constitution Day — because the small “free speech area” was in use.

College: Free speech requires a permit

Modesto Junior College (California) stopped students from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day, Sept. 13, because they hadn’t obtained a permit five days in advance and weren’t in the “free speech zone.”

Teachers won’t be fired for backing molester

When a Michigan math teacher faced sentencing for molesting an 8th-grade student in July, six teachers urged leniency in letters to the judge. A West Branch-Rose City school board member, married to a teacher, sat with molester Neal Erickson’s wife, also a teacher in court.

“Neal made a mistake,” writes (Sally) Campbell. “He allowed a mutual friendship to develop into much more. He realized his mistake and ended it years before someone anonymously sent something to the authorities which began this legal process.”

“I am asking that Neal be given the absolute minimum sentence, considering all the circumstances surrounding this case,” writes Amy Huber Eagan.

.  . .“Neal has plead (sic) guilty for his one criminal offense but he is not a predator,” writes (Harriet) Coe. “This was an isolated incident. He understands the severity of his action and is sincere in his desire to make amends.”

One letter said the boy hadn’t been affected much by the molestation, which occurred over three years. Another said Erickson had been punished by losing his job.

Judge Michael Baumgartner, who sentenced Erickson to 15 to 30 years in prison, said he was “appalled and ashamed that the community could rally around” a child molester. “What you did was a jab in the eye with a sharp stick to every parent who trusts a teacher,” Baumgartner added.

The boy’s parents, John and Lori Janczewski, demanded that the teachers who supported their son’s molester be fired; they’ve started a recall campaign against the board member.

The board rejected firing the teachers at this week’s meeting, saying it would bring on a free-speech lawsuit. The board president read a letter signed by the six teachers:

“Dear community, criminal sexual conduct is a serious crime we do not condone. The safety of our students is our foremost concern. Our letters were never intended to cause any harm. We know the young man’s family is suffering, and empathize with their pain. It is our sincerest hope that the community will move forward for the sake of the students.”

Several parents threatened to pull their children out of WB-RC schools and send them to a charter school.

The family has been threatened for speaking out against the teachers, the victim’s father said on the Glenn Beck radio show. Their garage was fire bombed in the middle of the night and the letters “YWP” and “ITY” were spray painted on their house.  John Janczewski thinks that may stand for “you will pay” and “I told you.”

I don’t think the board can fire teachers for supporting their former colleague — and his wife, who’s still teaching in the district. But teachers minimizing child molesting is shameful and appalling.

Gay-unfriendly student wins speech case

In a teacher-initiated discussion on anti-gay bullying, a Michigan high school student said he “couldn’t accept gays” because of his Catholic faith. The economics teacher equated the statement to saying he “couldn’t accept blacks” and kicked him out of class, writing up a referral for “unacceptable behavior.”

In a June 19 ruling in Glowacki v. Howell Public School District, a federal district judge ruled that the teacher violated the student’s right to free expression, reports Ed Week.

U.S. District Judge Patrick J. Duggan of Detroit awarded damages of $1 to Daniel Glowacki, who was a junior at Howell High School in the fall of 2010.  Howell Public School District, which took no action against the student and reprimanded the teacher, was not liable, the judge ruled.

“Public schools must strive to provide a safe atmosphere conducive to learning for all students while fostering an environment that tolerates the expression of different viewpoints, even if unpopular, so as to equip students with the tools necessary for participation in a democratic society,” Judge Duggan said.

Glowacki did not disrupt the class, the judge ruled. McDowell engaged in viewpoint discrimination.

When asked about the move by the remaining students, McDowell said a student could not voice an opinion that “creates an uncomfortable learning environment for another student,” according to court papers.

Imagine how lively class discussion would be if no student was allowed to make another student feel uncomfortable.

Glowacki transferred to another economics class.

Race at Roxbury CC

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick named Gerald Chertavian, who founded a job training program, to chair the board of troubled Roxbury Community College, which has been plagued by mismanagement and scandal. A Boston “activist” claims only blacks should run a majority-black college. (Only 48 percent of students say they’re black, but there seems to be a lot of decline-to-state students.)

An Iowa community college has paid nearly $14,000 to settle a free-speech lawsuit by a student who was barred from handing out flyers criticizing college funding for a conference on gay youth.

Student suspended for Twitter budget ‘riot’

After the Cicero-North Syracuse school district budget was rejected by voters, students debated possible budget cuts on Twitter at #shitCNSshouldcut. The hashtag’s creator, high school senior Patrick Brown, was suspended for three days, reports the Syracuse Post-Standard. He’d called for cutting the executive principal’s job.

“I was called down to the office and told I was being suspended for harassment of teachers, which no harassment was ever committed,” Brown said. “I proved them wrong and instead they suspended me for cellphone use in class and disrupting the education process because the trend I started created a social media riot.”

Brown admits using his cellphone in class. But he doesn’t think that’s why he was suspended. “It’s wrong that I can’t express my opinion on Twitter without being punished,” Brown said. “They didn’t like our opinions, but that doesn’t mean we can’t express them.”

A lacrosse player, Brown said he’s never received a detention or any other disciplinary action at school.

When word of the suspension spread, someone created #FreePatBrown to discuss freedom of speech. Let’s hope that doesn’t start another social media riot. We wouldn’t want high school students discussing school policy and budget priorities.

Feds to students: You can’t say that

The Obama administration’s move to “dramatically undermine students’ and faculty rights at colleges across the country” is another government scandal, writes Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in the Wall Street Journal.

The Education Department and Justice Department rewrote the federal government’s rules about sexual harassment and free speech on campus in a May 9 letter to the University of Montana. To retain federal funding, colleges and universities must punish

“unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including “verbal conduct,” otherwise known as speech.

Till now, sexual harassment had to be “objectively offensive” to a “reasonable person.” That’s gone. Anyone who claims to be offended is a victim of harassment. Furthermore, colleges must respond to “student-on-student harassment” off campus and on, and may discipline the accused before the harassment charge has been investigated.

Last week’s letter is part of a decades-long effort by anti-“hate speech” professors, students, activists and administrators to classify any offensive speech as harassment unprotected by the First Amendment. Such speech codes reached their height in the 1980s and 1990s, but they were defeated in federal and state court and came in for public ridicule.

Still, a FIRE survey of 409 colleges this year found 62 percent maintain speech codes that violate First Amendment standards. Students aren’t the only victims.

In 2011, the University of Denver suspended a professor and found him guilty of sexual harassment because his class discussion on sexual taboos in American culture (in a graduate-level course) was considered too racy. Last year, Appalachian State University suspended a professor for creating a “hostile environment” after she criticized the university’s treatment of sexual-assault cases involving student-athletes and screened a documentary critical of the adult-film industry.

The government’s sweeping definition of sexual harassment will extend to other forms of speech, Lukianoff predicts.

At Tufts in 2007, a conservative student publication was found guilty of harassment for criticizing Islam. The same happened to a professor at Purdue University at Calumet in 2012, who faced a four-month investigation.

University administrators live in fear of discrimination and harassment lawsuits and costly investigations by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, Lukianoff writes. You could call it harassment.