Shocking Gay Bashing Statements by New Jersey Public School Teacher Frankly, the title really doesn’t convey just how unbelievable – and yet sadly believable – this breaking story seems to be. From what we can glean, and as reported in the October 13, 2011 Star Ledger, Union Township school officials are now “investigating” homophobic gay bashing in certain Facebook postings by a public school teacher at Union High School. The comments seem to be in response to the fact that…
Shocking Gay Bashing Statements by New Jersey Public School Teacher
Frankly, the title really doesn’t convey just how unbelievable – and yet sadly believable – this breaking story seems to be.
From what we can glean, and as reported in the October 13, 2011 Star Ledger, Union Township school officials are now “investigating” homophobic gay bashing in certain Facebook postings by a public school teacher at Union High School.
The comments seem to be in response to the fact that the school was celebrating October as “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history month.” The exhibit consisted of the names and photos of famous LGBT Americans. Teacher Vicki Knox seems to be the “culprit” in a series of Facebook postings expressing severe homophobic and anti-gay sentiment, though no final determination has yet been made.
Early in the Facebook conversation, a friend asked Knox about the history exhibit, asking whether or not it had “really” been put up at the high school. The response was, “Yes they did!!! And it’s still there! I am pitching a fit!” Later in the conversation, Knox appears to have stated, “I think battle lines are going to be drawn soon.”
Toward the end of the conversation, Knox posted “Homosexuality is a perverted spirit that has existed from the beginning of creation…I know sin and it breeds like cancer.” She went on to say: “Union is not South Orange [or] Maplewood where one out of four families consists of two Mommies or daddies…Why parade your unnatural, immoral behaviors before the rest of us? I/we do not have to accept anything, anyone, any behavior or any choices! I do not have to tolerate anything others wish to do.”
Still later in her rant, Knox states: “…That’s what I teach and preach ma’am!”
So where to begin? Obviously, I suppose the fair minded civil rights lawyer within me starts with individual rights, so let’s discuss those. Let’s discuss hers.
Does this teacher have the right to believe anything she wishes about homosexuality or about anything else? Of course she does. The Constitution, which I have repeatedly lauded as the most valuable document created by the mind of man, and which governs our imperfect but successful republic, says she has that right, and no one can take it away by force or by intimidation.
Whether or not we agree with the reasons she believes as she does, of course, makes no difference, for the same reason that Jews have the right to believe as they do, Christians the right to believe as they do, Druids, Pagans, Wickans, Atheists, etc. The very plurality of religious or non-religious or philosophical belief systems in our country is not only one of its strengths, but also one of the reasons why it is impossible for the state ever to oppress or favor one over another. It’s the reason why such beliefs must remain out of government and why government must be protected from such beliefs when it comes to secular lawmaking. If our laws and public conduct are inspired by one or more particular religious or philosophical systems that preach that one or more groups are inferior, then this society is not fairly run.
So does this teacher have a right to go to her house of worship and believe as she likes alongside others who believe similarly? You bet.
On the other hand, what she has the right to believe on the one hand, and what she has right to do on the other, are two different things. So let’s move to the next level of analysis.
The exercise of individual liberties by A cannot result in the deprivation of individual liberties for B. That eternal balancing is why republics are never perfect and whey ours is never perfect. When we decide what Vicki Knox can or cannot say or endorse publicly, we don’t look at her in a vacuum. We look at her taking into account the public position she holds, the public trust she enjoys and the power she wields to access – and affect – large numbers of young minds. We must examine what she says in that light, and consider the special capacity that she has to make her statements – as opposed to purely private statements by someone who doesn’t work for the school district – publicly heard and publicly felt.
We have a strong anti-discrimination law in this state. It applies everywhere, including in every workplace and in every school. It prevents “free speech” which, in certain locations and within certain relationships, effects discrimination of types our society has decided to eliminate. Thus as a restriction on free speech, the law is still Constitutionally valid and acceptable, because it prevents an even greater harm – what happens when someone is discriminated against – even though it must do so with a “small” harm: moderate restriction of free speech of only certain vile types in certain relationships where the victim of the speech is particularly vulnerable to it and powerless to avoid it.
Thus the LAD restricts free “hate speech” in employment settings, contract relationships and in places of public accommodation, like schools. Specifically, the LAD prevents schools from allowing students to “gay bash” or to otherwise discriminate on the basis of race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, etc. Obviously, what students cannot do to other students, school professionals certainly cannot do to students.
So we have a conflict on the one hand between Vicki Knox’s right to free speech outside of school grounds, speech which is not specifically directed at any student, gay or straight, and on the other, the right – indeed, the obligation – on the part of the employer to protect students from feeling vilified by a teacher and to prevent that teacher from inspiring others to spout similar hate speech.
What to do?
Well, Vicki Knox and her apologists will say that this is purely private speech on her private Facebook page, that she’s not saying these things in the classroom nor is she saying them directly to her students or as a representative of the school district. Yet that’s intellectually dishonest and obviously incorrect on a practical level.
If President Obama had a private Facebook page and said anything bashing this country, the entire country would be up in arms. There’s a certain point at which a public employee in a position of public trust and in a position to speak with the apparent authority of that public position must yield some of their rights to private expression because of the price that others must pay when that “private” expression is undertaken irresponsibly.
I don’t know whether or not Vicki Knox did or said these things. It’s possible that the investigation may reveal that someone hijacked her Facebook page and that Vicki Knox personally doesn’t have any of these views. Obviously, the people who know Vicki Knox well both in and out of the school environment will be able to shed light on whether or not these are the sorts of things that Vicki Knox would say. If they are, then the investigation will probably yield a result incriminating her personally.
So as much as I believe in free speech, I do not believe that free speech can be used to oppress, humiliate or denigrate in violation of other civil rights laws, such as the above discussed LAD (the “Law Against Discrimination”). Vicki Knox, whether she intended to do so or not, was publicly humiliating every gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual student in her school and every parent, friend and loved one of such students, who would hear her words. And that her words would be heard in a widespread way is in inevitable truth of our age. God Bless the internet, I suppose. With the power of immediate widespread expression comes responsibility. So while some might say that her Facebook page is purely private and that no one has to read it, the minute that something like this gets out and around, her ability to appear as a neutral and fair-minded educator is destroyed. How can students take her seriously when she says things like this? How can anyone take her seriously? I don’t know what subject she teaches, but, of course, it doesn’t matter. Even if she teaches math, which has little or nothing to do with her personal philosophy, it’s unfair and unrealistic and unacceptable to expect a gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual student, or a student close to such a student, to sit in her classroom and know that they’re listening to a hateful, ignorant bigot discuss differential equations.
Things are hard enough for students today without asking them to endure that. There are plenty of non-bigoted teachers who can teach math.
If it should turn out that the investigation does reveal that Vicki Knox made or endorsed these statements, then she’s got to go. She’s abused her position of trust and has made herself unsuitable to a secular government position; there are plenty of others who are principled enough not to do so and who are capable of teaching whatever it is she teaches.
This is not “the thought police,” it’s simply common sense and fair play. If someone wants the perquisites and power that come with a teaching position such as hers, then one must exercise those rights and powers responsibly.