An Albany (N.Y.) High School English teacher was placed on leave last week after giving students in three sophomore English classes the assignment of writing a five-paragraph essay to persuade the reader that Jews are evil, the Times Union reports.
The school district neither released the name of the teacher nor identified the teacher’s gender. But it was reported how the assignment was made: “You must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”
Many students were disturbed by the writing assignment, which came after they had watched Nazi propaganda films. Upon reading about the assignment in the Times Union, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings condemned it sharply. The district’s superintendent apologized and said students and teachers will have sensitivity counselors available, which means the school is turning this into a learning opportunity for all involved.
“You asked a child to support the notion that the Holocaust was justified, that’s my struggle,” the paper quoted Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard as saying. “It’s an illogical leap for a student to make.”
Others were not so charitable in their remarks: “The teacher responsible for coming up with and assigning students with this task must be held accountable for attempting to indoctrinate children with anti-Semitic beliefs,” said David Greenfield, a New York City councilman, in a statement. “Quite obviously, this teacher lacks the judgment and common sense necessary to have a position of such great responsibility and is clearly not fit to return to the classroom.”
Where’s the First Amendment
Teachers do not have unlimited free speech rights when it comes to curricular matters, said the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in October 2010. In the case of Evans-Marshall v. Board of Educ. of the Tipp City Exempted Village Sch. Dist., No. 09-3775 (6th Cir. Oct. 21, 2010), the appellate court found that a teacher could be dismissed for not following the school district’s directions regarding what materials to use or what lessons to teach in class. She can’t just teach whatever she wants.
The actual case involved a charge that the school district fired one teacher as retaliation—that in firing her, the district was retaliating against her use of class materials district officials didn’t agree with. Retaliatory firing is, of course, illegal, but the court said the teacher couldn’t claim the dismissal was retaliatory unless it could be proven that it retaliated against something that was not part of her official duties.
That is, the school can control speech that comprises a teacher’s official duties, but if the school is retaliating against something that is not part of the teacher’s official duties, such as her involvement at a protest rally outside her official capacity at the school, that would be illegal and a violation of the teacher’s First Amendment rights of free speech.