Free Speech Facebook and Finding a Safe Place

I mentioned it on Friday, but have you been following the story of the teacher who found himself under fire for a recent Facebook quote?

The status,: “”I’m watching the news, eating dinner, when the story about the New York okaying same sex unions came on and I almost threw up.” was listed on his personal page.

The school officials received a complaint and immediately began looking into whether or not his post violated their code of ethics. The teacher was reassigned while the investigation continues.

Here’s the thing.

This is an individual who has a personal opinion which he expressed on the “privacy” of his own personal Facebook wall. We don’t know if his page was accessible to his students or not.

What he said turns my stomach. What he said is bigoted, rude, demeaning, and stupid. But just like I have the right to say what I just said, he has the right to say what he said.

It isn’t always easy, but don’t we have to accept that in our free society, we have to allow bigots and dumb asses to say their piece?

Sort of, back to that in a second.

Let’s look at a similar thing. Recently there has been a rash of celebrities spouting homophobic, hate filled rants geared against the LGBT+ community. From Tracey Jordan and Adam Carolla’s “comedic” rants to pro athletes and actors using the word “gay” and “faggot” as insults, these incidents usually have the following life span.

Celebrity shoots his/her mouth off.

TMZ or other media sources light up like Christmas trees and the story goes viral

Organizations like GLADD call for an apology.

Facebook statuses around the county abound with anger, sadness, and tirades galore. People talk about boycotting or protesting. Bloggers wax poetic or deliver their own rants.

Celebrity, though publicist, issues an apology usually containing phrases like “I never meant to hurt anyone…” or “I’m just a comedian…”

Organizations like GLADD call the apology “hallow” or “empty” etc

The news cycle finds some new and even more sensational story to dwell on.

Rinse and Repeat

Now, along with most of you who read this, I stand alongside GLADD when they ask for the apologies from the celebrities.

We ask for an apology when they use demeaning language, when they use “gay” as an insult, when they step over the line of decency. We call celebrities out on such behavior because they are supposed to be role models, because they influence people, because they have a higher level of responsibility to project positivity into the world.

Of course, they have the right to say what they say, and we have the right to ask for the apology.

But this is really important to remember: they have the right to not apologize.

Usually they go ahead and make the public statement of remorse. Celebrities have a vested interest in keeping themselves on the “good” side of public opinion.

But let’s not forget that some celebrities don’t apologize. To my knowledge Bill Maher hasn’t apologized to the Catholic Church or NOM despite their offense at many of his comments.  NOM certainly hasn’t apologized for the rampant lies that they told during the Prop  8 campaign.

Maybe that is why the apology of a celebrity so often rings hallow. We collectively know that they are in some way pandering to someone most, if not all, of the time. We know that those in power, those with influence use their words to maintain it, reenergize it, or to just plain get attention.

Which brings us back to the school teacher in Florida. When asked if he would apologize, he maintained his right to express his opinion. He is quoted as saying that his status wasn’t hateful, it was just sharing his personal beliefs.

And a lot of people agree with him and his sentiments.

This is where it gets murky. Should this man potentially lose his job because he spoke his mind?

If we punish him, don’t we have to punish anyone who says anything that someone finds offensive?

I personally struggle with this. I abhor what he said, but I do feel he has the right to say it.


Except he is a teacher. He is highly influential to his students. He is in a position of power and thus should be held to a higher standard.

The law is slow to catch up to the issue of Facebook, but harassment laws for years have struggled with this issue. As far as I can ascertain, the rules break down like this. Those in positions of authority, even when off duty, must be aware of their influence and their responsibility to protect others from the perception of harassment. This means that since he is a teacher, he shouldn’t go on Facebook and spout anti LGBT, anti Semitic, or anti African American rhetoric unless he has a reasonable expectation that none of his coworkers or subordinates will have access to it and thus be potentially offended.

Again, he can say what he wants, as long as he has the reasonable expectation that his co workers or subordinates won’t hear it.

Right or wrong, we are basically living in a world of limited free speech… Your ability to engage in free speech is limited by your position of authority , power, or influence.

Which basically means that we have different rules or expectations for different people.

Again, I struggle with this. I understand the idea behind “holding them to a higher level of responsibility due to their higher level of influence,” but it still smacks of inequality.

Of course these types of stratified levels of inappropriateness are tied into the anti-bullying laws. You do have the right to say you think all gay people are evil sinners who should burn in hell if you are a pastor, a protester, or a politician. (People might ask for an apology; you don’t have to give it.)  But you don’t have the right to say you think all gay people are evil sinners who should burn in hell if you are a teacher and you are saying it to your students, or to your student’s parents, or to your coworkers… You could, of course say it privately to your friends. Or even publically as long as you were sure none of your students, your student’s parents, or your coworkers were likely to hear it.

Is that muddled enough for you?

Any of you can hold a sign at a gay man’s funeral and harass the mourners, but if you want to make a blurb on your Facebook page spouting bigotry and hate, you better be damn sure you aren’t in a position of power, authority, or influence.


But sort of understandable.

We need to have the right to speak out against things we find disgusting. We need to challenge the status quo and fight for new rights and changes in tradition. However, in guaranteeing us this right, we have to allow others to have the right to argue their side, to shout out heralds for the olden days, to call us sinners, etc

But, we have a social contract. We have the expectation that at work and at school we will be in a safe place where we won’t be shouted down, where we won’t have to live in fear.

We give up a bit of our freedom, to ensure that safe place.

Which is why this particular issue with the teacher strikes a chord. He violated that safe place by bringing in his outside opinions.

Or, he may have. Again we aren’t sure if his Facebook was accessible to his students, which would of course add weight one way or the other to the outcome.

Only time will tell… and we will be watching.

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