A Midwest schoolteacher was fired for writing on Facebook that he doesn’t approve of dairy farming. His comments were way off-target, but his firing is even more egregious.
An elementary school teacher in Ohio has been fired for posting his dislike of dairy farming on his Facebook page.
(Uh, aren’t teachers the ones who are supposed to warn the kids that what they post online can come back to haunt them in later employment situations? Just sayin’).
Keith Allison, an avowed vegan, had been hired as a tutor at the former Marshallville Elementary School in Smithville, Ohio, for the 2013-14 school year. Smithville, a town of 1,333 people in central part of the Buckeye State, is equidistant from Akron, formerly the Tire Capital of America but now far more famous as the hometown of mega-superstar LeBron James, and Canton, the site of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
If the facts in Allison’s case are accurate, Smithville’s in line for induction into the Educational Hall of Shame.
In August this year, he was terminated when a local farmer whose operation was displayed on Allison’s Facebook page complained to the school board that he was concerned for the safety of his child, who attended a district school.
Green Local Board of Education Superintendent Judy Robinson acknowledged that Allison, who tutored elementary students in English and math, was terminated because his Facebook post offended the owner of the farm, although he didn’t identify the owner or the location of the farm.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio fired off a letter to Robinson from attorney Joseph Mead stating that, “Teachers, like all American citizens, have a First Amendment right to engage in free speech. A school district cannot punish an employee because a member of the community objects to what the employee has to say.
“As the training ground for future citizens, schools have a special obligation to follow the Constitution,” Mead wrote.
Helen Carroll, a Green Local Schools attorney, officially denied that Allison was fired for sharing his beliefs. But Allison told the ACLU that, “It was very clearly explained to me, that (post) was the reason.”
The ACLU letter requested that the district give Allison his job back and apologize for terminating him. The district ought to comply with the first part of the request; apologies are optional — although far less costly than litigation.
The ACLU, correctly in my opinion, also pointed out that case law has determined that lack of tenure does not allow discharge of public school teachers for unconstitutional reasons. In other words, just because Allison was not under contract for the 2014-15 school year, he cannot be fired for his comments, then have his termination restructured as a non-renewal of his contract.
The school board’s decision was especially egregious because Allison posted his opinions on his own time, outside the classroom and on a subject unrelated to his teaching duties. I don’t blame the dairy farm owner, who apparently has connections on the school board, for feeling concerned that animal rights activists might protest at his farm — or worse.
However, speech is protected for precisely that reason: If the government can preclude people from speaking out because someone decides the content is “dangerous,” we’ve just lost one of our most precious rights and the primary aspect of American society that distinguishes us from the repressive dictatorships around the world that we rightly condemn for jailing citizens who speak out against the authorities.
“[His] post did not violate any law,” Mead wrote. “It did not threaten anyone. It was not vulgar. Indeed, nothing about the post is even about teaching or Allison’s duties as a teacher.
“The Superintendent shared that she disagreed with Mr. Allison’s position and suggested that public school teachers in farming communities need to pay attention to whether their outside activities might offend the economic interests of the local agricultural community.”
Look, I understand the farmer’s ire, and I get it that the majority of the folks in any rural region aren’t going to side with practicing vegans. But the right to free speech is enshrined in the First Amendment precisely for that reason. If government gets to censor or silence someone because someone more powerful doesn’t like their viewpoint, our rights are meaningless.
Nobody. The First Amendment test is not whether anyone objects to comments with which they agree but whether society tolerates speech with which it disagrees. That’s why Neo-Nazis got to march down the main street of Skokie, Ill., a largely Jewish community, as a famous court ruling some years ago decreed.
And when a school board has a problem with a teacher’s opinions expressed off the job, the answer is conversation, not termination. Mr. Allison would likely benefit from a dialogue with local dairy farmers, but in the end, as the ACLU letter phrased it, “Urging people to drink soy milk on Facebook is not a fireable offense.”
I totally disagree with every word of Allison’s Facebook post.
And I disagree with equal vigor the decision to fire him for saying it.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.