What Amy Sorrell did to get in trouble at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School was, metaphorically speaking, a bank robbery compared to the jaywalking that got this Indiana teacher fired:
When one of Deborah Mayer's elementary school students asked her on the eve of the Iraq war whether she would ever take part in a peace march, the veteran teacher recalls answering, "I honk for peace."
Soon afterward, Mayer lost her job and her home in Indiana. She was out of work for nearly three years. And when she complained to federal courts that her free speech rights had been violated, the courts replied, essentially, that as a public schoolteacher, she didn't have any.
The article refers to "legal analysts," who make much of the fact that, according to the courts, public school teachers don't really have any free speech rights to speak of. As far as the courts are concerned, one expert is quoted as saying, "public education is inherently a situation where the government is the speaker, and ... its employees are the mouthpieces of the government."
But the fact is that anybody who works for a paycheck leaves a lot of rights at the employer's door. Employers have great latitude in setting working conditions employees might be engaging in that the employer believes might hurt the business or the work environment, including activities that might involve "free speech." I think most employers try to use common sense -- treating a discreet "God is Good" sign on somebody's desk differently than he might treat an employee who goes around all day telling co-workers they're going to hell if they don't shape up -- but they certainly don't have to.
There was an infamous local case back during the Gulf War. People who had friends or relatives involved were going around wearing yellow ribbons to show their support. The editor of the Journal Gazette, however, forbid his employees to wear them. Wearing the ribbons, you see, constituted "taking sides" on a public issue, and that might hurt the paper's reputation for being a "neutral observer."
You might think that an odd position to take for an institution that spends so much time and energy defending the free-speech rights of everybody else, but we do that kind of stuff all the time, voluntarily giving up rights other people take for granted. There's a big debate going on in the newsrooms now about whether journalists should be able to sign petitions for or against the planned $500 million school refurbishing plan. If it were an actual vote, you see, that would be a secret. But signing a petition is a public act, and then people would know the signers were "for" or "against" Fort Wayne Community Schools. Speaking of voting, I know journalists who never participate in primaries, because then people would think they are Democrats or Republicans and then start accusing them of being unfair to the other side.
I think we've made way too much of the appearance of propriety, trying so desperately to appear neutral and "objective," whatever that is. We all have opinions that affect our actions. I would rather know what those opinions are, so I can judge for myself what weight to give them, than to be asked to pretend those opinions don't exist.