We have yet another teacher suspended or put on leave for merely expressing her opinion of Black Lives Matter on her personal Facebook page. After Tiffany Riley wrote that she does not agree with the BLM, the Mount Ascutney School Board held an emergency meeting to declare that it is “uniformly appalled” by the exercise of free speech and Superintendent David Baker assured the public that they would be working on “mutually agreed upon severance package.” The case magnifies concerns over the free speech rights of teachers on social media or in their private lives. As a public employee, Riley could seek judicial relief rather than a severance package under the First Amendment.
As we have previously discussed (with an Oregon professor and a Rutgers professor), there remains an uncertain line in what language is protected for teachers in their private lives. There were also controversies at the University of California and Boston University, where there have been criticism of such a double standard, even in the face of criminal conduct. There were also such an incident at the University of London involving Bahar Mustafa as well as one involving a University of Pennsylvania professor. Some intolerant statements against students are deemed free speech while others are deemed hate speech or the basis for university action. There is a lack of consistency or uniformity in these actions which turn on the specific groups left aggrieved by out-of-school comments. There is also a tolerance of faculty and students tearing down fliers and stopping the speech of conservatives. Indeed, even faculty who assaulted pro-life advocates was supported by faculty and lionized for her activism.
Most recently, we discussed the effort to remove one of the country’s most distinguished economists from his position because Harald Uhlig, the senior editor of the Journal of Political Economy, criticized Black Lives Matter and Cornell Law School professor William A. Jacobson is reportedly facing demands that he be fired because he wrote a blog about the Black Lives Matter movement.
So what is the act that uniformly appalled the school board? Riley wrote:
“I do not think people should be made to feel they have to choose black race over human race. While I understand the urgency to feel compelled to advocate for black lives, what about our fellow law enforcement? What about all others who advocate for and demand equity for all? Just because I don’t walk around with a BLM sign should not mean I am a racist (sic).”
She said that she actually does believe that black lives do matter but was motivated to write to object to “the coercive measures taken to get to this point across; some of which are falsified in an attempt to prove a point.” One can certainly disagree with that view. Indeed, it could be the foundation for a substantive discussion on how to best protect black lives and how to deal with police abuse. However, it was declared “tone deaf” because Riley was challenging an approved or orthodox position.
Simply because she shared her view of BLM in her private life, Baker declared “They don’t see any way that she’s going to go forward as the principal of that building given those comments and that statement. It’s clear that the community has lost faith in her ability to lead.”
What about the faith and tolerance of free speech? There is not even a nod of concern over the right of people to support reforms but not necessarily the BLM movement or some of its more controversial positions.
As always, I come to these issues from a free speech perspective. I am less concerned with the merits of the position than I am in the refusal to allow one side to be stated without punitive measures. I would take (and have taken) the same position if the view on BLM were reversed. I fail to see what educators cannot express their views in favor of or against BLM in participating in one of the most important periods of debate in our history. The message to educators is that you must not criticize BLM in your private life if you want to keep your job. The board does not even entertain the possibility that Riley might not be a racist and still question BLM, which has been involved in controversies over academic freedom and free speech on campuses. We have never had any organization treated as so inviolate that it cannot be challenged by anyone in their private or personal discourse.
Teachers in Chicago can go to Venezuela to support a dictator who has arrested and murdered scores of people, including suppressing free speech and the free press. They were not punished or declared “tone deaf.” Boards like Mount Ascutney School Board engage in open content-based regulation of speech of teachers in the private lives of teachers. They will be applauded for such action against free speech as people ignore the implications of such punitive measures.
This is not about BLM. It is about free speech. Of course, the Board is not being “tone deaf.” Mount Ascutney School Board has guaranteed that there will be no sound at all, at least no dissenting voices heard among its teachers.