Court rejects teacher’s free-speech claim

Teachers don’t have free-speech rights when it comes to curriculum, a federal appeals court ruled this week.  The case involved a high school English teacher in Tipp City, Ohio who was criticized by parents for assigning Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and for letting ninth graders read Heather Has Two Mommies in a unit on censorship. Then she was fired. From Ed Week’s School Law Blog:

Despite positive performance reviews before the controversy, the principal’s evaluations afterwards criticized (Shelley) Evans-Marshall’s attitude and demeanor and her “use of material that is pushing the limits of community standards.” The school board in March 2002 decided not to renew her contract, citing “problems with communications and teamwork.”

Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton, who wrote the opinion, said the teacher had been “shabbily” treated, but had no right to set her own curriculum.

“When a teacher teaches, the school system does not regulate that speech as much as it hires that speech,” Sutton wrote, borrowing language from a 7th Circuit decision in a similar case. “Expression is a teacher’s stock in trade, the commodity she sells to her employer in exchange for a salary. And if it is the school board that hires that speech, it can surely regulate the content of what is or is not expressed, what is expressed in other words on its behalf.”

The employer’s needs limit what people can say on the job. You can’t tell off the obnoxious customer and expect to stay employed. Still, I wonder if that censorship unit was part of the school’s curriculum. How do you teach about censorship without reading any controversial books?