Teachers Under A Morality Microscope

Below is my column this morning in The Los Angeles Times on the increasing number of cases where teachers are punished for comments or activities in their private lives — often under nebulous disruption or moral turpitude grounds. While the recent case of a teacher moonlighting as a porn star in California raises understandable concerns for school officials, most of these cases involve either past conduct or clearly protected speech. This is part of a broader number of cases that we have been following dealing with public employees ranging from city managers to police officers to firefighters. The question is how much our public employees must confirm their political and social activities to satisfy members of the public.

HEADLINE: Teachers under a microscope

BYLINE: Jonathan Turley, Jonathan Turley is a professor of public interest law at George Washington University.

BODY:

In February, a Philadelphia high school teacher was suspended because of a posting to her blog in which she complained that her students sometimes acted like “rude, disengaged, lazy whiners.” In May, a Florida high school football coach was fired for sending explicit pictures to his 20-year-old girlfriend. She was not a student. In August, a Florida high school’s “Teacher of the Year” was fired for writing on Facebook outside school hours that he considered gay marriage to be a sin and same-sex unions a “cesspool.”

Most citizens view the end of work each day as a clear line in dividing their responsibilities to an employer from their rights as an individual. While at work, we accept that we must comply with work-related expectations and policies. But when the whistle blows, we consider ourselves our own masters — pursuing recreation or even legal vices as we see fit.

Increasingly, however, public school teachers are being fired or suspended for perfectly lawful activities during off-work hours when those activities are deemed inappropriate by parents or school officials.

Consider a few other such cases in the last few years:

In Pennsylvania in 2010, an unidentified teacher was suspended after a third party posted a picture on Facebook showing her with a male stripper at a bridal shower.

In Georgia in 2011, teacher Ashley Payne lost a court case challenging her forced resignation in 2009. Her departure came after a parent objected to a photo she posted to Facebook showing her holding a drink while on vacation in Europe. School officials said the posting “promoted alcohol use.”

In 2009, Wisconsin teacher Betsy Ramsdale was put on leave for posting a picture of herself looking down the sight of a rifle on her Facebook site.

All of these cases involved completely lawful conduct by teachers outside of school hours. So why did they suffer consequences? As a school board member put it in the case of the Pennsylvania teacher suspended for the bridal party picture, “Everybody has a right to do what they want on their own time, but once kids and parents see it on the Internet, it becomes the school district’s problem.” The trouble with that reasoning is that it allows teachers to enjoy the same basic rights as other citizens only so long as they don’t enjoy them in public.

Teachers have also been disciplined for lawful work they did before their teaching careers. In March, Oxnard middle school teacher Stacie Halas was placed on administrative leave after it came to light that she had been a porn actress before becoming a teacher. And Melissa Petro, an elementary teacher in the Bronx, was yanked from the classroom and accused of conduct “unbecoming of a teacher” after she wrote a column criticizing a new rule blocking the use of Craigslist to solicit sexual encounters. In the column, she admitted that “from October 2006 to January 2007, I accepted money in exchange for sexual services.” Immediately labeled “the Hooker Teacher,” she was fired despite two master’s degrees, five years’ experience in nonprofit work and three years as a teacher. Petro resigned rather than face a termination hearing.

And then there is the case of Shawn Loftis, a substitute teacher in Miami until it came out that he had worked as a gay porn actor before becoming a teacher. Loftis was fired for having violated a school district rule requiring teachers to “conduct themselves, both in their employment and in the community, in a manner that will reflect credit upon themselves and the school system.” He was also barred from obtaining a teaching certificate for five years by the Florida Department of Education. In March, the Florida Education Practices Commission reversed that order and said Loftis could obtain a teaching certificate. But local officials were quick to assure citizens that they would not have to hire Loftis even if he were certified.

While teachers are perhaps the most common targets of such discipline, other public employees, including police officers, city managers and prison guards, have also found themselves punished for private behavior deemed unacceptable by the public.

We demand a great deal of our public school teachers. They put in long hours in overcrowded classrooms, and yet they receive lower salaries than people in other professions requiring similar education levels.

For this sacrifice, we now demand that they live their lives according to a morality standard set to satisfy the lowest common denominator of parental sensibilities. They live under the transparent conditions of celebrities without any of the benefits, with parental paparazzi eager to catch them in an unguarded moment. They deserve better.

Jonathan Turley

Los Angeles Times April 2, 2012

18 thoughts on “Teachers Under A Morality Microscope

  1. Reading these lines they invite to many sorts of responses. Since I’m at Turley’s can be assured the worst drivel and bigotism won’t appear in the comment section. Glad for large blessings.

    Am reminded of Stockholm’s yearly gay pride parade. Do you have one too near you? Perhaps it needs one for over-worked teachers.

    Whether any have reason to parade because they have had their private conduct used to hang them is very, very doubtful.

    They would be accompanied by gay and lesbian police, firemen, even politicians who all affirm that they are not and will not be hidden anymore.

    A great pride in me when I see them. Because I’m gay? No, simply the same pride experienced when viewing repressed people standing their ground, and knowing it is possiible to do so in Sweden, and no school boards would dare encroach.

  2. Very timely article Professor. This probing into a teacher’s private and off duty life is abhorrent. Is this a concerted effort to kill the public school system and force privatization?

  3. raf – yes it is part of a larger effort to destroy public education. It is critical to the effort that teachers be demoralized so that they do not want to stay in the profession and college students do not want to enter in to the profession.

  4. Raff,

    How’s that go….. First they came for the….. Then…..there was no one to care…….. Thank goodness we basically grew up post WWII…… And nam….

  5. This was my pitch to the dog pack here this morning after we read the post:

    Civil rights dog here. I will segment the conduct. If posting something on the internet, or someone else posting something about one, is speech, then we have a prong to stand on. If the speech is in the form or direction or catagory of petitioning one’s government for redress of grievances then the speech can arise from another prong. The First Amendment sets out: speech, speech and press, religion, assembly, petition the government for redress of grievances. If someone is protesting the discrimination against gays by someone else, then one can be said to be petitioning one’s government by addressing those in the assembly, for redress of grievances. Further, if the assemblage is now those who read the blogs on the internet then that my fellow dogs is speech on matters of public concern. Furthermore, the right ot assemble on the internet is protected and the right to petition the government is proteced. Public employees who are terminated for speaking out on matters of public concern are protected. This is a violation of your rights under the First Amendment (all the prongs except religious prong), Fourteenth Amendment (due process, equal protection, applicability of First Amdt to the States). The individuals acting in their official capacity, of the city, county, state, federal government, who fire or discipline you, are defendants under the Civil Rights Act which is codified at 42 United States Code Section 1983. Furthermore, if two or more of those schmucks conspire, under Section 1985(3) you can sue them for conspiracy and under that section the statements of one conspirator come into evidence against all conspiring defendants. You are entitled to collect atty fees from the defendants under Section 1988. The superiors are liable and the city or municipality is liable. But not the state itself– doctrine of sovereign immunity under 11th Amendment..

    The Wiener Act, posting your wiener on the internet like that dumbschmuck Congressman from New York, is not protected speech, in that it is not speech or a posting on a matter of public concern. Even though the constitutents in the Bronx might want to put him in the Zoo of that same name.

    The blogarticle here does not address the role of unions. Perhaps the teachers do need unions despite what the Tea Partiers and the RepubliCons up in WisconSin say about busting unions.

    Bottom line though is Americans should keep their faces and Asses off of Facebook. Maybe we should create a medium which is the message, called Anthony WeinerBook.

    Just a dog talkin.

  6. Just another example of the faux puritanism that seems to be growing like a weed in this country. With everyone in everyone else’s business while condoning the “do as I say not as I do” mentality, this is where we’re headed. I wonder how many of these holier than thou parents have skeletons of their own that are probably worse.

  7. I agree that some teachers are being held to an impossible standard.

    My niece is new teacher. She has been active on FB for quite some time but is cancelling her participation. I’ll miss hearing about her activities, but better that than posts taken out of context to smear her.

    My general rule: don’t post anything that would be embarrassing if it were printed on the front page of the NYTimes. My FB page is soooo boring.

  8. I have trouble defending people who go from porn to teaching, given that their former work is so accessible and so easily undermines their credibility. I’m no prude and have done research with people in the adult business. Political speech like the homophobe in Florida is much easier to defend, although engaging in partisan political activity (which might be attached to that) would violate many local versions of the Hatch Act. It’s pretty typical for teachers to live outside of the districts where they teach and to do other things to separate their personal and professional lives, People who accept certain kinds of employment, esp. in the public sector lose certain liberties either as a condition of employment or as a condition of good sense.

  9. Rich:
    “People who accept certain kinds of employment, esp. in the public sector lose certain liberties either as a condition of employment or as a condition of good sense.”

    I’ll bet they are great in bed, and do some of the nastiest things there!!!!
    So, let all school boards eat their hearts out.

  10. While the recent case of a teacher moonlighting as a porn star in California raises understandable concerns for school officials, most of these cases involve either past conduct or clearly protected speech. This is part of a broader number of cases that we have been following dealing with public employees ranging from city managers to police officers to firefighters. The question is how much our public employees must confirm their political and social activities to satisfy members of the public.

    Good enough.

    But let me add an intermediate consideration: contagion.

    If the behavior is not inherently contagious, like the toxins of power, we should treat these matters like we do disease of the fleshly sort.

    As they used to ask, when the Queen was law, as Sarah Palin imagined it to still be in her substantial rabbit hole, “is it catching.”

    If no one can catch it, if it is not contagious, then why punish teachers in the form of quarantine, or worse, termination of employment?

    I mean, shouldn’t the educational system practice the most educated responses to intellectual challenges?

    At the same time, where there are twilight zones of understanding, consider it contagious until demonstrated to be otherwise.

  11. As someone mentioned, it is part of the attack on public education by the right wing religious wackos. It is amazing to me that anyone is willing to commit their professional education and career to being a public school teacher. What a change from my past when teachers were regarded as highly respected members of the community!

  12. When I first attended college, I wanted to be a teacher. Shit like this is why I turned away in Fall 2002 and decided to do something else with my life.

  13. The religious right has succeeded in replacing rational expectations of moral behavior in the performance of one’s job with moralistic judgmentalism. It is time for more people to tell the Rick Santorums of the world to mind their own business.

  14. “It is critical to the effort that teachers be demoralized so that they do not want to stay in the profession and college students do not want to enter in to the profession.”

    I’m married to a teacher.

    This strategy is working beyond the wildest dreams of those who dreamed it up.

    Average career span of a teacher – five years.

    Percentage of teachers who make it all the way to retirement – less than 1%.

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