Given my history, readers can assume I am a strong believer in free speech and expression. In order to achieve growth and progress in education, there needs to be a balance between professional responsibility among teachers and educational policy. Unfortunately, in my district it seems as though the scales are increasingly becoming tipped toward personnel policy management.
This past summer, my district passed a new employee speech policy. The policy went into effect without much fanfare or publicity, which is another disappointing lack of transparency. The first line of the policy states “Speech made as a school district employee is not constitutionally protected.” The policy also includes “Speech made by staff in their official capacity as school district employees shall furthermore be in keeping with the district’s mission statement.” Incidentally, my district mission statement is “Educating today’s learners for tomorrow’s world.” Guidelines and policies governing employee speech are a necessity in today’s reality; however, these restrictions seem to not only be legally questionable, but also an effort to suppress employee expression to protect district liability.
The legality of the first statement in the policy is concerning. Supreme Court cases Pickering v. Board of Education (1968) and Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) reveal that this statement is inaccurate. In fact, the Tinker majority decision states “students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse door.” Overreaching statements stating employees are “not constitutionally protected”(and the last statement of the student publications policy) cause unnecessary self-censorship and result in an educational learning experience that fails to meet the district mission.
To complicate the speech restrictions, district officials also implemented a social media policy where it explains “… all West Fargo Public Schools social media accounts are a voice for the school district.” The social media requirements include creating the account with a district email and sharing the password with district officials. In addition to the security red flags, this system of communication is neither authentic nor meant to continue a conversation about improving the academic environment. If employees feel they can’t share their opinions openly and honestly in a public forum, any organization will struggle to improve.
In his book Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros encourages administrators and leaders to “create the conditions where innovation in education flourishes.” He adds “Our job as educators and leaders is not to control others but to bring out the best in them.” It’s important to remember that a “pile on” of restrictive policies can hurt teacher retention and prohibit innovative thinking from both students and teachers. Just as strict Internet filters limit a student’s ability to stretch his/her thinking via limiting resources, strict policies on employee speech prevent a free flow of ideas to assist with improvement of the overall educational experience.
My advocacy for student expression is directly related to my philosophy that students need to operate in an environment that will help them sharpen their citizenship skills and prepare them to be productive members of their future communities. In this same way, district administrators should foster expression among staff members to encourage fresh ideas and innovative changes. If staff members are leery of expressing their challenges on the status quo, creating a digital footprint or using controversial current events for class discussion, it only serves to weaken this citizenship standard and short-change our students.
Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.