No free speech for high school teachers

When a ninth-grade English teacher at El Camino Charter High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District wore a T-shirt with the words “I can’t breathe” in bold letters across the front, she found herself in hot water (“L.A. teacher flees home amid threats after wearing ‘I can’t breathe’ T-shirt to online class,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 28). 

What followed is deeply disturbing.  One parent complained, sharing a screenshot of the teacher on social media.  Death threats soon followed, forcing the teacher and her daughter to flee from her home.  Hundreds of teachers in the district wore Black Lives Matter shirts to class in support.  The school’s administration did not come to her aid.

The question is whether teachers are permitted to express their personal opinions about issues of public interest in class.  What public school teachers express outside of class is a different story.  When I was teaching in the LAUSD, the policy was clear: Teachers were supposed to present both sides of controversial issues.  Whether wearing a T-shirt with any slogan violates that policy remains for the courts to decide.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

2 Replies to “No free speech for high school teachers”

  1. Several issues bouncing around here.

    Unclear whether the teacher was wearing the T-shirt while she was teaching as opposed to while she was on-line for something else. If she was on-line for something else, then it’s probably her business what she wears.

    If she was teaching, then the employer can control what she wears — subject to any special Constitutional limits or contract rules.

    She was teaching at a charter school. Unclear whether charter schools are govt entities for First Amendment purposes. Probably not — they get $ from the govt, but they are primarily private employers. If the charter is viewed as a private employer rather than as a govt entity, then there are no Constitutional/First Amendment limits on what the employer can require. And, for that matter, the employer can probably even control her off-duty behavior (subject to employment contract rules).

    Unclear whether the school is allowing the teacher to continue to teach. I’d say the school can probably discipline/discharge her for violating dress code/political statement rules (absent employment contract rules).

    Re the threats — if the threats are explicit enough, the threats would be criminal and the police should be investigating the threats (if the teacher goes to the police). But, the people voicing the “threats'” would have a First Amendment right to express their opinions short of making physical threats.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: You ask some important questions. The teacher wore the T-shirt while she was teaching her class. The charter school she taught at was authorized by the Los Angeles Unified School District. I don’t understand why UTLA, the teachers’ union, didn’t come to her defense.

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