For many years, we have discussed disciplinary actions taken against teachers for social media postings. As a free speech blog, the trend has been alarming as teachers are fired for taking dissenting or controversial views. Now, an incoming Winthrop University Professor, April Mustian, is openly threatening K-12 teachers that they are being watched for any “rhetoric” deemed pro-police or antiBlack. A conservative group has objected to the now deleted Facebook posting from April 26th. This is a small such controversy but it is not isolated. It is indicative of thousands of such postings against free speech from academics across the country. This threatening posting was notable because it reflects a conscious effort to intimidate other teachers in their exercise of free speech. The whole purpose is to chill free speech by threatening their jobs and livelihood if they dare to voice opposing views. This latest controversy highlights the unresolved question of what speech rights teachers still have in participating in the national debate over police abuse and systemic racism.
Mustian has been teaching special education at Illinois State University. Her now blocked Twitter account described her purpose as “decolonizing myself & edu.”
On her Facebook page, Mustian declares “If you are a White K-12 teacher who teaches Black children, and you are on your FB posting pro-police anti-Black rhetoric, I hope and pray those are posts and beliefs you are willing to stand by in front of Black families you are support to also love and serve.”
We previously discussed the Vermont principal who was removed for expressing her opinion of Black Lives Matter on her personal Facebook page. We also recently discussedthe firing of a Michigan coach who expressed support for President Trump. However, this did not begin with the recent protests. We have previously seen teachers (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here) students (here, here and here) and other public employees (here and here and here) fired for their private speech or conduct, including school employees fired for posing in magazines (here), appearing on television shows in bikinis (here), or having a prior career in the adult entertainment industry (here).
However, there is a sweeping trend across educational levels from grade schools to colleges to silence those with conservative or dissenting views of recent controversies. Schools and districts have been conspicuously silent in supporting the free speech rights of teachers in participating in public and political debates. They have allowed the chilling effect on speech to grow as figures like Mustian threaten any teacher who dares to challenge a new orthodoxy of thought and expression. The inclusion of “pro-police” rhetoric in such threats is indicative of not just a de facto speech code for teachers on social media but the undefined scope of such codes.
Winthrop University proclaims Veritas cum libertate as its motto, but there can be no liberty is there is only one permitted truth allowed by faculty like Professor Mustian.
What stood out in the controversy involving Mustian is how open and threatening this effort has become. You now have a college professor who is telling kindergarten teachers that they are being watched for any statements deemed pro-police or anti-Black. The posting also captures how this trend is becoming raw content-based discrimination. Few teachers are subjected to campaigns for termination for expressing views considered anti-white or anti-police. Indeed, Change.org recently took down a petition criticizing a professor for declaring “White Lives Don’t Matter.” From a free speech perspective, it is not just the threats against expression but the bias in enforcement that is so concerning.
My concern is that we are not having a discussion on when it is appropriate to take action against teachers for social media postings. Despite my well-known robust views on free speech (that some may well view extreme), I accept that there can be statements made outside of school that raise legitimate issues for review or discipline. However, I have supported teachers who have also expressed views that were deemed anti-White, anti-Republican, or otherwise intolerant as protected speech. My natural default position remains with free speech. Yet, I would be eager to have this discussion. The problem is that we have continual cases of teachers being disciplined or fired without a clear understanding of what is permissible and what is not permissible speech. That lack of a bright line is anathema to free speech.
That uncertainty allows figures like Mustian to threaten fellow teachers if they risk any “rhetoric” that may be deemed pro-police or anti-Black. In the end, I am less interested about the merits of the pro-police or anti-police postings of teachers on their private social media. I will support them all. That is the point of free speech. If there is bad speech, the solution is more and better speech. However, there is a movement now to make censorship and speech controls acceptable. That is the “new day” that Mustian so eagerly embraces as yet another academic opposed to free speech.