Sunday, March 1, 2015

Can a Facebook Post Get a Teacher Fired?

A public-school teacher, and the plaintiff in the case Knox v. Union Township Board of Education, was suspended after expressing her religious views on her personal Facebook page.  On a private computer and outside of school hours JenyĆ© Viki Knox expressed her disapproval in a school billboard that contained homosexual content and engaged in a series of comments explaining her religious beliefs on this topic.  Knox argued that homosexuality is a sin and is disobedient to God, and therefore inconsistent with her religious views.

Knox was employed at the Union Township High School as a special education teacher, and also served as the adviser for a Christian Bible Study club and the school's Gospel Choir.  The school knew of her religious beliefs and that Knox was also an ordained minister, yet following the school administration's discovery of her post, Knox was pressured to "say that her religious beliefs were wrong."

Without notice and in front of students and teachers Knox was removed from her classroom and taken to a room to be questioned by the Board's attorney, the Assistant Superintendent, and the Vice President of the teachers' union.  It was during this series of questioning that Knox was pressured to abandon her religious views and was criticized for her beliefs and her expression of them.

Knox was permitted to return to her classroom, but only two days later was again removed from her classroom to be told by the Board Superintendent that she would be suspended with pay for the content of her Facebook posts and comments.  Following her suspension, Knox's health deteriorated which led her to resign as a result of "the stress of the intimidation, harassment, and emotional distress that resulted from the investigation and the Defendants' actions."  Four months following Knox's resignation a settlement agreement was reached in which Knox agreed to resign and pay back the salary earned during her suspension.

Knox is now filing complaint on ten accounts ranging from violation of Due Process and Equal Protection to breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  For the purposes of this argument, however, I will focus on her complaints of violation of Free Speech, Free Exercise, and Establishment Clauses.

The Board of Education filed a motion to dismiss Knox's complaints, and a District Court has granted the motion on some of Knox's complaints, yet denied the motion on all complaints regarding her constitutional religious rights.  I agree with the Court's decision to deny the Board's motion.

In Tinker v. Des Moines School District it is held that "it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," but the Court also established that teachers are agents of the state and therefore must not establish a religion with their actions in the classroom.

I would object to a teacher expressing views in a classroom consistent with those that Knox posted on Facebook because, as Tinker established, a teacher represents the state and such comments could be perceived as an establishment of religion.  Knox's Facebook post and comments, however, are her private expression of religion; a teacher's religious beliefs that are expressed outside of school hours and in one's private life should not be regulated or even monitored by the state.

The state needs to take an accommodationist stance on this issue by permitting teachers to express whatever religious views they please outside of school so long as the teacher's views are not expressed in their teaching.  To regulate a teacher's religious beliefs and actions in her private life would be extremely detrimental to her exercise of religious freedom, and with little benefit to the state.  As long as it can be proven that a teacher does not impose her religious views on non-consenting students (those outside of religious clubs of which a teacher might be the adviser) the state has no business monitoring the religious expression of teachers as there is no fear of establishment.


Peter M said...

I agree with Emily that suspending and pressuring Ms. Knox to resign violated her right to free exercise of religion. They key fact in this case are that she expressed her views after school hours and without any school equipment. I agree with reasoning put forth in Tinker that the fact that you are employed by the state does not strip you of your constitutional rights. By dealing with Ms. Knox in this way, the school sent a message that it is hostile to certain views and religions.

Abby Copp said...

I definitely agree with Emily and Peter. The main aspect of this case that especially stands out to me is how harshly Ms. Knox was treated, and how she was basically forced to denounce her religious beliefs. The actions of the school's attorney and the district administrators present at the interrogation are unacceptable to me. This case would be different if Ms. Knox's religious views were evident in her teaching, but as Emily and Peter have stated, they were not, due to the fact that her opinion was expressed on Facebook using her personal computer during her personal time. Ms. Knox's free exercise and free speech rights were certainly violated here.

Ana M. said...

I agree that teachers should be allowed to express their religious beliefs outside of the classroom. I believe that this teacher was treated unfairly. She did not impose nor promote her religious beliefs in the classroom. As long as the teachers demonstrates a high level of competence and are able to teach they should not face consequences for their actions outside of the classroom.

Nina N. said...

I agree with what everyone else has said. I feel as though part of why this case even got as far as it has is because teachers have been subject to discipline based on other Facebook posts, but the reasoning behind those cases and this one seems quite different. This is a case of violating her constitutional right to express her religious beliefs and opinions, regardless of whether or not these comments offended someone. Emily also makes a good point that this action seems to have very little benefit to the state (so there's no real state interest in firing this teacher) because this post is seemingly irrelevant to the classroom.