NYC Teachers Sue Over Political Expression

Here’s an interesting issue.  According to the New York Times, the New York City teacher’s union is suing because teachers have been forbidden from wearing political buttons and displaying political signs on the job.  The union feels this is a violation of the teachers’ right to freedom of expression.  However, the school system feels that teachers have an obligation to maintain a strict sense of neutrality in the classroom when it comes to politics.

I tend to side with the teachers’ union on this issue — but I can certainly see both sides.  On the one hand, teachers have a right to free speech just like everybody else.  Teachers have an obligation to make sure their students feel 100% comfortable speaking their own minds about opinions, even if they don’t agree with the teacher — but that doesn’t mean that the teacher can’t express an opinion of his or her own.  This kind of open exchange of ideas teaches kids to participate in an intelligent and open minded way in political discussions, which is an important skill for learning to be a citizen.

In other words, if the teacher walks in to her social studies class with an Obama pin on, she can say, “As you can see, I’m wearing an Obama pin.  I’ve decided to support Obama because I personally think the war in Iraq was a big mistake, and because I think he’s got some great ideas about how to get us out of this financial crisis.  But I know you don’t all agree with me, and I want to have a discussion about what you think about this election.”  During this discussion, the teacher can help the students learn about how to discuss politics without attacking others personally — which is a skill that everybody ought to learn.

And hey, just about anything that gets young people talking and thinking about politics is a good thing, don’t you think?

On the other hand, I can see the other side of this issue.  Sadly, not all teachers are this open minded, and there just may be a few out there who will downgrade students who disagree with their opinions about the election.  And after all, we’re talking about the public schools here, and when someone in the public schools advocates a particular political opinion, that can get messy when we’re talking about legalities.  It’s kind of like a public teacher posting a sign that says “Jesus Christ is Lord” on her desk.  Is that free expression, or a violation of the separation between church and state?  (Of course, no one would have a problem with the teacher wearing a gold cross necklace — so where do we draw the line?)

So, what do you think?  Should teachers be able to express their political opinions through buttons and similar means in the public schools?

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