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When to Speak Out and When to Shut Up


Here in the Orlando area, there is a teacher at Mount Dora High School by the name of Jerry Buell who has a Facebook page. By all accounts he is an excellent teacher, even winning Teacher of the Year.

He is also a Christian and a conservative. Nothing wrong with that either; however, on his Facebook page, Buell reacted quite strongly to the news that the State of New York legalized gay marriage. In fact, he said that when he saw the news on television, he “wanted to throw up,” further characterizing gay unions as “a cesspool” and homosexuality itself as an “abomination.”

These remarks got him suspended by the Lake County School Board. However, there was such an outcry from the Christian right that he was later reinstated, the rationale being that his remarks didn’t “interfere with the operation of the district.” Both the ACLU and the hyper-conservative Liberty Counsel defended the Teacher.

What I found outrageous was that his Liberty Counsel lawyer, senior counsel Harry Mihet claimed that Buell’s comments wouldn’t make gay students feel unwelcome in his classroom, a concept he called “an outrageous leap of faith.” It’s somehow comforting to know that lawyers for the Christian right are as prone to spinning as outrageous lies as the lawyers for the other side.

Of course gay students are going to feel uncomfortable in his classroom. How would you feel about a teacher who publically said you are an abomination and that you shouldn’t be allowed to marry or raise children? Or let’s put this another way – if a teacher who happened to be an atheist put on his/her Facebook page that Christians are pedophiles who never outgrew the need for an invisible friend (which is something I’ve heard an atheist friend utter, so take that for what it’s worth), the same people defending Buell’s free speech would be demanding the hypothetical teacher’s resignation, let alone suspension.

The truth is that Mr. Buell is in a position of authority, in this case as the teacher of young people. As a person in this position, he should have the common sense to understand that his remarks can be hurtful to his students, and create an atmosphere of hostility in the classroom. He should also be aware that there are consequences to our actions.

Freedom of Speech may be a right but that doesn’t mean it comes without consequence. Just ask Al Campanis, the former General Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers who lost his job for making disparaging remarks about African-Americans, or Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder who did the same. When you are in a position of authority, it is expected that you are going to understand that there is a way of stating your beliefs and there is a way of not doing so.

You may believe that gays are inferior human beings and shouldn’t be given the same rights as heterosexuals. That is your right to believe it. It is even your right to say it. It is not your right however to create an uncomfortable or hostile atmosphere for gay people in doing so. Your free speech doesn’t cover that, because the people you’re talking about have rights too.

There is a simple concept when it comes to Free Speech: You can’t just say what you want to say just because you feel like saying it. That’s not freedom of speech – it’s diarrhea of the mouth. Like it or not, your freedom to say whatever you like carries with it the responsibility of choosing your words carefully so that you don’t abrogate the rights of others.

The electronic frontier of social networking has created the ability for us to express ourselves to a larger circle of people than ever before. However that is a double-edged sword. It means that what you say on your own time in a social medium like Facebook or Twitter is available to be read by anybody. There are laws that prohibit the media from slandering or libeling individuals. Those laws exist to prevent the media from abusing its position. Now that we are all, in a sense, our own media outlets, we should be governed by the same sense of responsibilities. If Mr. Buell wants to express his views privately, he shouldn’t post them on a public forum. If he does so, he should accept the consequences and not cry out for a right that does not protect him in this situation.

Nobody is saying that Jerry Buell doesn’t have the right to an opinion or even the right to express it. However, if expressing his opinion creates a situation in which he is incapable of doing his job, his employers have every right to take steps to correct the situation, something which the Lake County School Board failed to do. And if a student of Jerry Buell’s feels uncomfortable having him as a teacher or feel that the learning environment is a hostile one, the parents of said student have every right to sue the Lake County School Board for it, something which could cost the taxpayers of Lake County but more importantly the students of Lake County who are caught in the crossfire. Personally if my son were attending Mount Dora High School, I wouldn’t let him anywhere near Jerry Buell’s classroom. One has to wonder what parents of non-Christian faiths who have kids at Mount Dora High School think of all of this.

Finally, it comes down to this; one of the other rights our Constitution guarantees us is the separation between Church and State. Every time Jerry Buell walks in his classroom carrying his conservative Christian opinions with him (as former students of his say he does), he is violating that Amendment and so is the Lake County School Board.

Teachers bring in their value system into the classroom; they are, after all, only human. However, part of the job of teaching in public schools in this country is to leave your religious beliefs at the door. While often religion fuels our values, we have to be able to separate the two if we are to conduct the business of the United States according to the principles that the Founding Fathers laid down. People have the right to follow any religious belief they choose. They simply aren’t allowed to bring it into the classrooms of public schools with them. If you want to have a religious education for your child, send them to a school run by your particular faith. If you want to teach the values of your religion to children, do so in a school run by that religion. It’s a pretty simple proposition.

In other words, there are places where it’s appropriate to express your faith and other places where it is not. There are places where it’s appropriate to express your political beliefs and other places where it is not. There are also forums where it is appropriate to express your opinions and others where it is not and there are jobs where you may freely express your opinion on the Internet and others where it is not. To paraphrase the Byrds, there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven – a time to speak out and a time to shut up.


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