Sunday, September 4, 2011

Facebook, Religion, and Public Education



The boundary separating a teacher’s right to express his or her religious beliefs while not offending students in the classroom is very fragile. Furthermore, a teacher’s actions outside of the classroom can have serious implications with regards to appropriateness of expressing beliefs. Jerry Buell, a teacher employed by Florida public schools, has been recently confronted by this issue, as postings on his Facebook page have gained national attention (click here for full article). Specifically, his posts consisted of anti-gay remarks, as he stated that New York’s legalization of gay marriage made him want to “throw up.” He also compared gay unions to a “cesspool.” Buell pleads his rights to free speech, while other organizations and bloggers, including atheist Hemant Mehta, defend Buell in favor of his First Amendment right. However, this incident led to an investigation regarding Buell’s conduct in the classroom. Buell’s syllabus states (as a warning to students), “I teach God’s truth, I make very few compromises. If you believe you may have a problem with that, get your schedule changed, ‘cause I ain’t changing!” There are other examples of Buell’s overt displays of his religious and political beliefs, and many of his former students now claim that Buell was known to have made numerous anti-gay comments during class as well as hanging Bible verses with a picture of Jesus Christ above the classroom clock. Buell has deleted his Facebook page and gay right activists seek to determine whether or not Buell has violated the school district official guidelines as well as students’ rights.

What began as a controversial comment made outside of school walls has now escalated to an investigation of Jerry Buell’s conduct within the classroom. Buell’s comments on Facebook, although offending to many, were legal and a demonstration of his beliefs which clearly originate from religious ideals. However, a correlation between these comments and many of Buell’s distinct expressions of beliefs and values in the classroom is evident, which opens the door to the well-known controversial topic regarding a teacher’s ability to express religious beliefs in a classroom setting. Although this issue appears to be a standard topic regarding a teacher’s rights in and out of the classroom, it is complex since it has been suggested that Buell potentially offended many individuals in the process of overtly expressing his beliefs, in and out of the classroom.

This controversy encompasses many issues pertaining to a teacher’s classroom conduct and rights to the First Amendment. While I agree that Buell’s comments on Facebook were rather extreme and offensive, he has the right to express his opinion, especially outside of the classroom. However, as a teacher, I believe there are a certain set of standards one must abide by in or out of the classroom. For example, if a teacher runs into a student outside of the classroom, he or she should behave appropriately and in a professional manner so as to not suggest or present an inappropriate message towards the student. Buell deliberately posted a message on his Facebook knowing anyone, including his students, had access to his page. In my opinion, Buell needed to make a better effort in expressing his opinion in a professional manner. While investigators evaluate Buell’s classroom conduct, there also exists an issue regarding social networking and education. I believe it is necessary for school districts to establish a firm set of guidelines pertaining to teachers’ use of social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter. This is necessary since students have access to viewing teacher’s pages. Again, however, any strict guidelines regarding social networking has the potential to violate the First Amendment, as any American citizen has the right to free speech. Additionally, while I agree that Buell should teach his curriculum without Christian bias and be respectful of religions and opinions held by others in his classroom, people must remember that his religion, Christianity, mandates that followers of Jesus Christ must witness and preach Christianity to others. For example, Mark 16:15 states “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” Preventing him from preaching these messages to others would therefore be unconstitutional as this prohibits him from exercising his religious beliefs. This situation is a constant debate and applies to all Christian teachers in this nation. Unfortunately, no one can win, since allowing benefits for one religion would offend another, which is why neutrality in the classroom is necessary and optimal in order to eliminate conflicting religious interests.

7 comments:

Harry R. said...

I do not agree with Bryce's comment that school districts should "establish a firm set of guidelines" regarding teachers' use of social networking sites. This would illegally restrict the freedoms of all teachers, rightfully possessed so long as these social networking sites were not specifically focused on inside the classroom. Were such regulations enforced, there would be no reason not to expand these rules to restrict what signs teachers place on their front lawns or what bumper stickers they put on their cars, all regulations which would illegally violate their rights.

Jean A said...

While I understand Bryce's point that “Christianity mandates that followers of Jesus Christ must witness and preach Christianity to others” I do not feel that extends to teachers within the public school system. Although his anti-gay remarks were posted on his personal Facebook account page, he, as a teacher, is expected to uphold certain standards when interacting with students both in and out of the classroom. His Facebook page is accessible to all of his students, which is ultimately encouraging his students to view his page and see his viewpoint on trivial religious issues. In my view, anything that is spoken by the teacher to students or can be publically viewed by students should not contain any religious overtones endorsing their own beliefs.

Ally R said...

I agree with Bryce's comment in which he states schools should "establish a firm set of guidelines" in reference to social networking sites. Sites such as facebook, twitter, etcetera could potentially be used as a loophole to preach religious standpoints towards one's students. I feel that teachers should either block all of their students from viewing their profile, or ultimately treat their page as a classroom related activity. Teachers should be expected to withhold standards that represent their educational establishment positively both inside and out of the classroom, and by mandating such behavior on these social networking sites, schools would be able to further minimize the issue of religion within the classroom.

Liz Petrillo said...

I believe that what a teacher puts on his or her social networking page is up to them, however, being a teacher comes with the responsibility of being a role model. Although, this teacher did not believe in homosexuality, he should not have made it public for others to see. The students weren't born yesterday, they know how to search people on the internet, and if a teacher isn't smart enough to make their social networking pages private, that's their own problem. Further more, the internet is different than a classroom. Hanging religious symbols of a cross, and bible pages around the room is completely unacceptable, even if it wasn't anti-gay. What is hung in a classroom directly influences the students in the classroom, and making it one religion specific should not be permitted.

Callie B said...

While I agree that Mr. Buell's comments on his Facebook page are protected under his First Amendment rights, his actions inside the classroom are blatantly disregarding the ruling of the Everson vs. Board of Education. In this particular circumstance, the court ruled that public schools must be held to a standard of religious neutrality and may not favor one religion over another. The court decided that the need to be impartial in public education settings outweighs the teacher's right to "free exercise of religion" within the classroom, thus, Mr. Buell has clearly infringed upon his student's right to an unbiased education.

ChristopherJ. said...

Allowing schools to censor their employees social networking content would be a gross violation of those employees’ first amendment rights. It is perfectly acceptable to establish a code of conduct for teachers when they are in the classroom, but what those teachers say or do outside of school is their own business. The only rule regarding a teacher’s social networking content that I support is banning any communication between teachers and their students on said sites (i.e. friending each other on facebook). That kind of teacher-student contact is unprofessional and inappropriate, and disallowing it would prevent instances of students taking offense to the personal beliefs of their teachers (so long as those beliefs were not expressed in the classroom).

kanderson said...

Ideally, guidlines would be set up for a public school teacher's use of public social media sites. this is a hard situation though. what would be examples of some of these sites and how would this establishment unfold? i think that there would be many individuals (both teachers, parents, students, and school board officals) that would have a strong opinion of this establishment. honestly, it could take years to set up something like this. it is sad that public school teachers can't just have their day jobs and then go about their business outside of the hours of 8-4. We all know they can't, but life would certainly be much easier. I also found it so incredibly shocking what the teacher decided to include in his syallabus. that is just incredible to me. Perhaps it's me being ignorant (coming from a college and a northern ca highschool), but the professor is blantantly outlining his personal beliefs for all to see and explaining the fact that if students don't believe they should find a new teacher. aggressive.