In a stunning defeat for free speech and privacy rights a two-person appellate panel has upheld the firing of Jennifer O’Brien (see North Jersey.com). O’Brien, you may recall, was the Paterson elementary school teacher who was suspended for posting to her Facebook page that she felt like a warden for future criminals (see Teachers, Check Your Freedoms at the Door). The panel ruled that her behavior was not protected by the First Amendment and that her right to make those comments was “outweighed by the district’s interest in the efficient operation of its schools.”
Of course O’Brien’s behavior was stupid (or at least incredibly naïve) in this charged, litigious and anti-teacher climate. Teachers really cannot assume they have the same right to privacy as other professionals. A teacher is still expected to be a paragon of virtue, on and off campus (see Teachers, Madonna and Whore). In the past, it was not uncommon for teachers to be fired for getting pregnant, married or for having a boyfriend. Yet, as crazy as it sounds, they still are (see here for a recent example of a teacher being fired for getting pregnant out of wedlock). Teachers’ behavior at home and in the community (e.g., public intoxication, provocative attire, participation in street protests and activism) and on the internet are all open to monitoring and judgment by students, parents and administrators.
Yet regardless of how callous, careless or insensitive one feels O’Brien was, it is hard to see how firing her was in the best interests of society or children. If she was a terrible teacher and these comments were just the latest example of her cruelty toward children, then yes, build a case and go through the proper dismissal procedures. If, on the other hand, it was simply a tactless expression of frustration or exasperation with discipline problems in the classroom by an otherwise decent teacher, then get her some support or professional development. After all, teachers constantly complain privately about discipline problems to each other and to friends and family. Some no doubt even use the same pejorative comments she used, but have the sense to keep such comments off the social networking websites. This does not make them bad teachers or a threat to children.
In contrast, firing O’Brien for cause (thus denying her unemployment benefits) is deliberately cruel and callous, and completely unnecessary. But since she is an adult who betrayed the public trust, an erstwhile defender of children’s innocence who slandered their purity, a whore in Madonna’s clothing, it is entirely reasonable—indeed, desirable—to throw her to the wolves.