Saturday, 1 February 2003

Venue-appropriate discussions

Kevin Drum (CalPundit) thinks Erin O'Connor stretches to consider the case of Jendra Loeffelman, an elementary school teacher fired for expressing what O'Connor charitably describes as “controversial views,” to be another in a long line of P.C. outrages. Those controversial views were in expressed when she told her class “that she disapproved of interracial marriage,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, because she believed that the children of such marriages are subject to persecution.

Leaving aside whether or not one can oppose interracial marriage without being a racist (Kevin certainly considers it a racist belief, and it's hard to argue that point), the larger point that I think O'Connor misses is that Loeffelman's audience was eighth graders. While kids of that age certainly are capable of some independent thought, it's one thing to bring up one's personal beliefs when teaching a college seminar, and quite another to do it in an elementary school or junior high classroom. From the published accounts it appears Loeffelman was asked a direct question, but she still could have deflected it or avoided the question entirely.

O'Connor believes avoiding the question would send the wrong message, but the implicit message to the mixed-race children in the room — in essence, “I don't think your parents should have married each other” — is hardly the right message either, and one that most parents would rightly be appalled by. It's the equivalent situation to asking your teacher what he's doing this weekend, and him announcing he's planning on marching at a Klan rally or going to smash the windows of a few SUVs to protest the administration's failure to support Kyoto. Loeffelman wasn't fired for “refusing to pander” to anyone's sensibilities — she was fired for making a virtual endorsement of returning to Jim Crow, and for contributing to the air of persecution that she used to justify her beliefs in the first place.

Erin O'Connor has a followup, in which she summarizes my viewpoint as believing “[Loeffelman's] students are only in eighth-grade, and are therefore too young to cope with her opinions.” (I'd characterize my viewpoint not so much as one of whether or not they can cope, but whether or not they are capable of critically thinking about what a teacher presents in class. The critical thinking skills of many college undergraduates are woefully poor; I'd imagine that 99% of eighth graders take whatever a teacher says as gospel truth.)

While I agree that Loeffelman has some rights under the First Amendment in this case — which wouldn't apply if she was a private school teacher — the question obviously becomes: to what extent can she exercise those rights in her position teaching a class? Does she have the right to teach whatever she wants? More to the point, where's the line between teaching and just expressing one's opinion? If I'm standing in front of my class lecturing, I'm teaching; if two students come by my office and ask me about my personal beliefs, I'm probably not; if I talk to one at the drive-thru at Burger King, I'm definitely not.

The case of the homosexual volleyball coach that O'Connor cites appears different, in that the coach was subject to a broad injunction beforehand of dubious constitutional standing and did not discuss her sexual orientation with an entire class, but rather with an individual student, apparently outside a classroom situation. Fundamentally, there's a “reasonable time, place, and manner” argument to be made in Loeffelman's case, and that's where this case is going to be decided.

Jane Galt has a post on this as well, asking “if the teacher was black, would she be disciplined or fired?” Kevin Drum has a followup comment at Jane's site:

For what it's worth, I think disapproval of interracial marriage is disgusting no matter who it comes from. I know that many blacks disapprove of it too, and I don't like it. I don't like state policies against interracial adoptions, either.

However, there's also a considerable difference between saying something as a private citizen and saying something as a government employee. High school teachers, as agents of the state, simply don't have the right to say things in a classroom that would be protected if they were saying them as private citizens. Loeffelman had been a teacher for a long time and surely knew this.

Having said all I've said, I'm surprised that the school district actually fired her — most would have probably moved her to some job in administration or shipped her off to another school, rather than court controversy.