We have been discussing the investigations and terminations facing teachers over their expressing unpopular viewpoints on social media. Schools on both the high school and college levels are engaging in more monitoring of social media by students and teachers. The latest such case was reported in the Daily Herald involves Palatine High School’s Jeanne Hedgepeth who criticized the rioting after the death of George Floyd and referring to the violence as a “civil war.” She was fired by
Township High School District 211 and is now suing the school district. The case raises some of the same issues as the recent firing of a teacher in Loudon county — a case on appeal after he was reinstated by a court.
Hedgepeth was writing on her own time and on her personal social media accounts. She made a series of controversial statements like comparing the term “white privilege” to the use of the N-word. She also referred to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as “race baiters.”
The complaint names in the federal lawsuit are Superintendent Lisa Small, Director of Human Resources James Britton, and the five board of education members who voted in favor of Hedgepeth’s dismissal — Kim Cavill, Anna Klimkowicz, Robert LeFevre Jr., Steve Rosenblum and Ed Yung.
The complaint shows Hedgepeth on vacation in Florida and stating on May 31, 2020 “I don’t want to go home tomorrow. Now that the civil war has begun I want to move.”
One responder posted a meme suggesting that the riots could be stopped with a septic tank truck and a pressure cannon. Plaintiff reposted the meme, adding, “You think this would work?”
The longest Facebook posting was on June 1, 2020 when Hedgepeth wrote the following: posted
I am about facts, truth seeking and love. I will speak on any topic I choose because I live in a free country. I find the term “white privilege” as racist as the “N” word. You have not walked in my shoes either so do not make assumptions about me and my so called privilege. You think America is racist? Then you have been hoodwinked by the white liberal establishment and race baiters like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Travel the world and go see that every nation has racism and some more than others but few make efforts such as we do to mitigate or eliminate it. I have lived and seen. The people I am informed by about the black experience in America are actually some of the smartest people in America. And it so happens they are black. I highly recommend studying Thomas Sowell, who is now retired and in his 80’s. A treasure. A truth seeker. [D]oes REAL research and analysis. Candice Owens is one of the smartest and most courageous women in America and Larry Elders speaks the truth with a great sense of humor and FACTS not feelings. They are who I listen to when it comes to facts about the black experience in America. Don’t you think there is a deeper problem than racism when 50% of murders in America are committed by 13% of the population? Do you think there might be a subtle genocide of black babies when most planned parenthoods are put in poor neighborhoods and that 30% of abortions are black babies. [B]lack women only make up 7% of the U.S. population. The greatest power you have is what you believe about yourself. [W]hat have Democrats, mainstream media and intellectuals in ivory towers been telling the black community to believe about themselves for forty years? Wake up and stop believing them, then things will change.
Notably, none of these postings even identify Hedgepeth as a teacher or a District 211 employee, let alone post them in her capacity as a teacher or a District 211 employee. Yet, when she returned from her vacation, she was information that Defendant District 211 was investigating her for her May 31-June 1, 2020 Facebook posts.
Small ultimately accepted Britton’s July 14, 2020 recommendation of termination and then on July 16, 2020 meeting, Defendants Cavill, Klimkowicz, LeFevre, Rosenblum, and Yung voted to terminate Plaintiff’s employment because of her May 31-June 1, 2020 Facebook posts. Two other board members, Mark Cramer and Pete Dombrowski, voted against terminating Plaintiff.
These are obviously observations that many would find upsetting or offensive. However, we have regularly discussed teachers making equally if not more offensive comments from the opposing viewpoints. Last year, Winthrop University Professor, April Mustian threatened K-12 teachers that they are being watched for any “rhetoric” deemed pro-police or anti-Black. 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 discussed the 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).
In my view, these comments should be considered protected speech. Teachers routinely voice opposing views in favor of Black Lives Matter or against white privilege. Indeed, we previously discussed a professor to warn K-12 teachers that their social media postings would be monitored for any pro-police or anti-Black rhetoric to hold them accountable. Yet, we have seen terminations or investigations of teachers and public employees for denying that the United States is a racist country, deny Canada is a racist country, or calling BLM protesters “terrorists.”
There is an obvious inconsistency in how social media postings are treated. All of these comments on both sides are inflammatory or controversial. Yet, there is a clear tolerance for some viewpoints over others.
The alternative is free speech. Many people spend most of their efforts trying to silence rather than to respond to others. Many of us found it disturbing when Chicago teachers went to Venezuela to praise the blood-soaked government as teachers, reporters, and dissents languished in jails. However, I would be the first to defend their right to such speech. Free speech allows you to offer your own viewpoint to counter speech that you consider insensitive, wrong, or racist. However, teachers have a right to express such viewpoints and to participate in these important debates about our history, our institutions, and ourselves.
Here is the Complaint: Hedgepeth-v.-Britton-Chicago-teacher-complaint-03790