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.
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.
Los Angeles Times April 2, 2012