Two California teachers are under investigations in separate incidents involving classroom flags and videos this month. Government teacher Gabriel Gipe is under fire for boasting about his flying an Antifa flag at Inderkum High School and explaining that he has only “180 days to turn them into revolutionaries.” That controversy comes just days after another California teacher, Kristen Pitzen, boasted how she removed the American flag because it made her uncomfortable and replaced it with a gay pride flag. She laughed how students were then left to say the pledge of allegiance to the gay pride flag at Back Bay High School in Costa Mesa. Both raise similar issues of when free speech is not a complete defense for educators.
As for Gipe, he proclaims that he is a radical and is seeking to radicalize students. His display of the Antifa flag is clearly political and many of us view the group as a violent movement targeting academics and others with campaigns of intimidation and threats. Gipe posts pictures on social media proclaiming ‘F**k The Police” and says “probably as far left as you can go.” he stated ”Like, why aren’t people just taking up arms? Like why can’t we, you know — take up arms against the state?” in the video posted by the conservative site Project Veritas.
Last year, I testified in the Senate on Antifa and the growing anti-free speech movement in the United States. I specifically disagreed with the statement of House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler that Antifa (and its involvement in violent protests) is a “myth.” It is at its base a movement at war with free speech, defining the right itself as a tool of oppression. That purpose is evident in what is called the “bible” of the Antifa movement: Rutgers Professor Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook. Bray emphasizes the struggle of the movement against free speech: “At the heart of the anti-fascist outlook is a rejection of the classical liberal phrase that says, ‘I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’”
Indeed, Bray admits that “most Americans in Antifa have been anarchists or antiauthoritarian communists… From that standpoint, ‘free speech’ as such is merely a bourgeois fantasy unworthy of consideration.” It is an illusion designed to promote what Antifa is resisting “white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, ultra-nationalism, authoritarianism, and genocide.” Thus, all of these opposing figures are deemed fascistic and thus unworthy of being heard. Bray quotes one Antifa member as summing up their approach to free speech as a “nonargument . . . you have the right to speak but you also have the right to be shut up.”
If Gipe expressed his views just on social media, I would be the first to defend him so long as he is not actually engaged in radicalization efforts through his public school position.
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. I often defend such educators for views that many of us find offensive or even hateful as the exercise of free speech. I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments “detonating white people,” denouncing police, calling for Republicans to suffer, strangling police officers, celebrating the death of conservatives, calling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and other outrageous statements.
The views of Gipe are not uncommon. For example, University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, who has defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence. (Loomis also writes for the site “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.”)
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.”
These two teachers however are using their positions for political purposes and advocacy. The more serious case is that of Gipe. The Antifa flag is a clearly radical political symbol being displayed by a teacher who admits that he is trying to radicalize students through his classes.
Pitzen is also at fault given her obvious delight in replacing the American flag and leaving students with the choice of pledging allegiance to her chosen flag. However, I do not view the flag in the same way as the Antifa flag. It represents the movement for equal rights for the LGBTQ community. It can however raise difficult issues for students who have religious or political objections to aspects of LGBTQ policies. What is clear is that you cannot legitimately remove the American flag to leave your preferred flag as the only recognized flag for the class. The problem is precisely the one that Pitzen relishes and celebrates on her video: she left the students with no alternative but to appear to honor her chosen flag.
There are often difficult cases where educators espouse views for a pedagogical purposes that are deemed biased. Academic freedom often protect such discussions. Most of us try to be open of any bias while taking extra steps to present opposing views. Some however show a pronounced bias that can be viewed as pressuring students to parrot their views to succeed in their classes. These two cases present more clear cases, in my view, of crossing the line from academic freedom into open (and admitted) political advocacy.