Massachusetts Teachers Disciplined For Anti-War Protest During School Assembly

It hasn’t gotten much national attention beyond a few conservative blogs, but this story about two Massachusetts students teachers who were disciplined for a silent anti-war protest at a school assembly raises interesting First Amendment issues:

Two Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School teachers who held an anti-war sign during a senior assembly last week are facing disciplinary action.

D-Y world history teacher Marybeth Verani and English teacher Adeline “Carrie” Koscher have been put on paid administrative leave until the end of the school year June 24, Verani said yesterday.

In addition to the paid leave, Verani said she has been given an unpaid suspension for the first 10 days of school in September. Verani said she did not want to comment on what further discipline Koscher might be facing.

Verani and Koscher conducted a silent protest during the part of the assembly in which school officials recognized graduating seniors entering the military.

Verani and Koscher stood up on the bleachers and displayed an “end war” sign while a school resource officer made opening remarks about six students entering the military. They sat in the audience while the names of the students were being announced and remained seated when the assembly rose to give the students a standing ovation.

(…)

Verani said she and Koscher were not protesting the students set to join the military but what they saw as a recruiting moment involving a school official dressed in military fatigues. She said the students joining the military should have been awarded their plaques at a non-compulsory awards dinner instead of in front of an assembly that all students in the high school were required to attend.

“I wish school officials had shown some leadership in the building on behalf of an honest exchange of ideas and political discussions,” Verani said. “What message have they sent to students in the assembly who also chose not to give a standing ovation for militarism, or for students who were too afraid not to stand?”

One can argue that Verani and Koscher’s protest was inappropriate in that they should not have chosen an assembly meant to honor Seniors who were entering the military, which seems to be the general sentiment of many students and parents at the school, but does that mean that they should be disciplined for protesting ?

In Tinker v. Des Moines School District, the Supreme Court famously said:

First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate

While subsequent rulings by the Court have established that schools do have some power to regulate speech for sexual content, or the content of student newspapers, or conduct at off campus events, that central principle has never been seriously challenged. When that principle is applied to this situation I can’t see how punishing these teachers for what was, after all, a non-disruptive protest is at all acceptable.

You may not agree with their message, but that doesn’t mean they should be forbidden from delivering it or that they should be disciplined or filed (as some have suggested) for making it. It’s unfortunate that the school district has chosen to give their students such a horrible lesson in what Freedom of Speech is all about.

FILED UNDER: Education, Military Affairs
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Rick Almeida says:

    “It hasn’t gotten much national attention beyond a few conservative blogs, but this story about two Massachusetts students who were disciplined for a silent anti-war protest at a school assembly”

    Should be “teachers,” not “students”, right?

  2. Rick,

    You are correct. I’ve fixed that.

  3. JKB says:

    So you’d support taking no action if a student wore say an American flag on Cinco de Mayo?

    Or perhaps a “Affirmative Action has run its course” at an African-American History month assembly?

    Or perhaps firing school officials who took action against students wearing fatigues to a teacher prompted anti-war protest.

    Of course, these teachers, so called professionals, didn’t exhibit any professionalism or set a good example of showing support for the independent decisions of the young adults they are charged with helping create even when those choices differ with their beliefs. Instead they chose to act like high school students who can’t stand those not conforming to the group think.

  4. R. Dave says:

    I would say disciplining the teachers in this instance falls safely within the “government as employer” limitation on First Amendment speech by employees. It’s pretty easy for the government to argue that the teachers’ conduct here (protesting during an award ceremony honoring students) would interfere with the performance of their duties (educating said students) by undermining their credibility with, and the respect accorded them by, the student body.

  5. Wayne says:

    It makes a great deal of difference that they were teachers. They should be expected to and required to act in a professional manner. It would have been inappropriate for them to hold up a sign saying “vote for McCain” or “vote for Obama” at a school event. On their own time at a non school event that would be fine but on the job or in official capacity their actions are constraint.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    I agree w/ R. Dave.

    I’ll add that students and teachers should be treated differently because one is getting paid to be there and whould exercise professional workplace behaviors. Would discipline be appropriate in a comparable private sector situation, I’d say yes.

    The studens are compelled by law to be there, in school programs selected by their parents, under the supervision of adults who should not be using their authority to coerce students to their political views.

  7. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    St. Francis, I’m told, once said that “a gentle man is one who never inflicts pain”. The military, I was told, has a concept called “conduct unbecoming”. My father, I was told several times, believed that hospitality required certain concessions in the fiefdoms of others. As a business manager, I expected my employees to endured a bit of mistreatment by our customers in certain situations for the overall benefit to our enterprise.

    The Supreme Court decision you cited seems to favor the teachers on the free speech aspect of the issue. As to the maturity of the teachers decision-making, I would hope that they would be disciplined effectively.

  8. PD,

    Would you feel the same way if the teachers had stood silently (which they did in this case) while holding a banner that said “Victory In Afghanistan !” ?

  9. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    If I may take one more bite of this apple, why should a teacher be demonstrating her political beliefs while she is being paid by the taxpayers? Is it just, “All animals are equal; some animals are more equal”?

  10. An Interested Party says:

    it is a shame that there isn’t a similar incident out there where teachers demonstrated a pro-war and/or pro-military protest…I wonder how all those who are getting bent out of shape about this incident would react then…

  11. PD Shaw says:

    Doug, I would like to think I would have the same position if the message were reversed, but I might have to tweak the hypothetical to be certain.

    The protest against a war at a school assembly at which students are recognized for their choices is jarring to my ear. I can imagine demonstrations of support that straddle the lines between political and personal support. I would certainly be opposed to pro-war banners that contained words like “Bush, Obama, Islamofascists.” These would be jarring and clearly intended to make a political point, not support the students.

    I also think it would be wrong for teachers during the Vietnam War to silently demonstrate against those going to college and not supporting the country.

    To be clear, I’m fine with the students doing this in a way that is not disruptive, but teachers are in positions of authority and the idea of them using their positions to score political points off their students is wrong in my view.

  12. ssnabbtt says:

    Ask Deborah Mayer of Indiana if a teacher’s rights to free speech is protected in a public school by public servants. The United States Supreme Court upheld – and even the ACLU has published an article spelling out the legislation as it exists today. All agree that a teacher’s right to freedom of speech must be subjugated to the principle of neutrality in a public school. I am the one who spearheaded the national attention/scrutiny that our district has received as a result of these two teachers’ actions. Nothing they did was right and nothing the administration or School Committee (our version of a school board) has done in response has been appropriate. My son has gone through 11 years in this district and tolerance/acceptance for political advocacy in this district is so entrenched that it is far beyond this one egregiously inappropriate and disrespectful display which occurred last Friday. See http://susanstuff.wordpress.com for more details.

  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    I have a problem with this on the grounds that it’s narcissism on the teacher’s part. The ceremony is about the kids — not the teachers. They drew focus to themselves, made it about them.

    Uncool.

    I think an appropriate punishment would have been the principal calling them out a a pair of d-bags.

  14. John425 says:

    It would have been much better if the enlisting students had turned on the teachers and beat the crap out of them.

  15. Taxpayer says:

    It makes no difference whether the teachers held up signs that said “Victory in Afghanistan” or “I like pie”. They’re still disrupting a school event. For that, they should be disciplined.

  16. Michael says:

    Doug,
    While I agree with you that the teachers are protected from under the 1st Amendment, it does not absolve them of any consequences of their speech. As R. Dave said, this act has undermined the trust that students must have in the neutrality of their teachers. Would an ROTC student be able to trust that these teachers will treat them as favorably as they treat other students? I don’t think I would. And I generally agree with the sentiments of these teachers, so I don’t have to pretend that the tables were turned. Speech, even free speech, has consequences.

  17. Ole_Sarge says:

    Gee, if this was only 1978 and not 2010. I had 5 teachers in high school that were very vocal about being “anti-military” (in part due to the Viet Nam war protests that occurred on their college campus).

    There were several of us, that made no effort to hide that we were considering enlistment in the military after high school.

    Four of them, did make some moments in their classroom “not a place of learning or tolerance.” Painful is subjective, as is uncomfortable, and grades – well I gave up expecting an “A.”

    One did come and speak at our commencement exercises and publicly apologize to us, and to the entire class and our families. That was a shocker! But he was also the only one of the 5 that had ever served in uniform too.

    Those teachers can inflict a lot of pain on the student body.

    I served a 22 year career in the USAF, just so they have the right. No one said they had no rights, it was the manner and the situation that they did exercise it. Being present and staying silent is a right too, and acceptable under the school assembly conditions.

    They want to “hang a banner, do it on their own time elsewhere.

  18. caitlin judge says:

    i saw the whole thing. i was right behind the teacher, in fact shes my world history teacher.
    and yea i dont feel againist them. im not with the teacher or the students, im with myself.

  19. Beth Donovan says:

    Caitlin, if you are a typical student at your school, all the teachers should be fired for incompetence. I’m so sorry that a public education has not taught you to write, spell or punctuate.