Freedom to Teach? First Amendment Rules in the Classroom



Not everyone enjoys their job, but as the old saying goes, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Teachers and professors are charged with molding the minds of students and helping them develop skills that will propel them to a successful future, but what happens when a professor ignores university policies and starts teaching by his own rules?

In Howell v. Millersville Univ. of Pa., No. 5:17-cv-00075, 2017 BL 380322 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 20, 2017), a district court held that an associate professor and director of choral activities for a Pennsylvania university didn’t have First Amendment protection after filing a union grievance and criticizing the music department’s faculty and students at meetings, via email, and on social media.

Retaliation or University Policy?

In this case, a professor says that he was denied a promotion, subjected to two investigations, and forced to teach several large sections of general education classes in retaliation for refusing to comply with a policy requiring students to buy specific lecture notes and for having a unique teaching style.  Among the many complaints against him, the university says that the professor didn’t attend informational meetings regarding the university’s expectations for faculty supervisors, he caused a student to lose their placement in a school program, and he showed explicit and violent music videos in class.

The court said that the professor’s speech seemed more like an employee complaining about his job than a citizen speaking about a matter of public concern.  He only made his complaints internally and the speech related to the fact that his teaching style was constantly questioned by department faculty. The professor ignores the fact that most of his speech took place after he was denied the promotion, that his application materials were incomplete, and that he didn’t meet all of the required qualifications for the position that he applied to.

Regardless of his critical social media posts and emails, the university received numerous complaints from students and other faculty members about the professor’s misconduct and unprofessional behavior, and that alone was enough to warrant the two investigations; it also explains why he’d be passed up for a promotion.

Social Media Effect on Employment

Social media is a great outlet for a person wanting to keep in touch with friends and family, but it can also have a negative impact on one’s career. After being questioned by students about why the class discussion was focused on Satanism, anarchy, and politics - instead of popular music - the professor created a Facebook page and criticized his students for not wanting to focus on larger issues and for being incapable of critical thinking. To follow up his Facebook post, the professor posted an entry accusing the music department leaders of micromanagement on his Tumblr blog.

The professor mentions the First Amendment in his Facebook post but everything that he published on social media reflected his personal grievances and, therefore isn’t protected speech.  The Facebook post was only open to one class and could be viewed as an extension of the classroom, the court said.  Additionally, the university officials never saw the social media posts, so the professor can’t argue that it was used against him.

What about Academic Freedom?

Free speech is typically encouraged in university settings because professors and other staff members want students to be free and creative thinkers, but “educational institutions can regulate a teacher’s in-class speech.” Professors are merely representatives of the institution that they work for, so the institution gets the final say on what its students are taught. 

The professor has a right to his own personal views and opinions, but he can’t push those beliefs on students, especially if it goes against school policy.

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