Where GSE gets it wrong: thoughts on Viki Knox, part I

Note: Since I wrote this diary, reports have surfaced that Viki Knox indeed brought her views into the classroom on several occasions, likely violating the district policies and state law in the process. Worse, she violated a student’s First Amendment rights by kicking the student out of class for wearing a rainbow bracelet.

Viki Knox’s illegal conduct in the classroom raises substantial doubts about her fitness as a teacher. She ought to be fired. At the very least, she should be suspended for a prolonged period of time and must not set foot in another classroom until she understands that she needs to set her personal views aside and follow the laws of New Jersey, the policies of her school district, and the instructions of her superiors.

October, as many Blue Jersey readers know, is LGBT history month. To commemorate the occassion, Union Township High School set up a photo display featuring several famous gay and lesbian celebrities and historical figures.

Yet, this evening, Garden State Equality has organized dozens to protest a meeting of the Union Public School District Board of Education. GSE is not satisfied with school’s affirming message to gay and lesbian students. It wants the district to fire a schoolteacher who responded to the display with homophobic Facebook posts of the sort that one would expect from, say, the Westboro Baptist Church.

Make no mistake, Union Township High School special education teacher Viki Knox’s comments were reprehensible; Ms. Knox calls homosexuality a “perverted spirit” and compares it to cancer and alcoholism. But there are at least two problems with Garden State Equality’s impulsive response to these posts. First, in its hasty reaction to the teacher’s posts, the organization stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the competing values at stake. Second, GSE is doing a disservice to gay and lesbian students at Union Townshsip High School and across the state by passing up more effective responses to this controversy.

The First Amendment gives Viki Knox the right to express her opinions, asinine and offensive as they may be. As I will show below the fold, whether the school district may fire or otherwise discipline her is a close question that will probably turn on facts to be uncovered by investigation.

When the government speaks, it can say what it wants; to that end, it can control what its employees say when they are on the job. When public school teachers are at work, they speak primarily for the school district. Thus, a school district can control what its teachers can and cannot say at school.

These restrictions do not follow public employees home at the end of the day. With limited exceptions, public employees enjoy the same First Amendment rights of any other citizen when they leave the office or the precinct or the schoolhouse. They may be mouthpieces for the state when they are at school, but at home, on the street corner, and in cyberspace, they speak for themselves.

This distinction is important. To deprive public employees of freedom of speech when they’re not at work is to strip them entirely of this distinctly American liberty and to erode their citizenship and dignity. Just as strongly as I believe that our Constitution forbids the state from treating gays and lesbians as second-class citizens, I believe that our Constitution forbids the state from treating public employees as second-class speakers.

Finally, the First Amendment brooks no viewpoint-based discrimination. That is to say, the state may not treat speakers differently based on the value it ascribes to the speakers’ opinions. This applies to protected and unprotected private speech alike.

If Ms. Knox deviates from the district’s proscribed message while she is performing her official duties, the district may discipline her for insubordination. Thus, if the investigation of Ms. Knox uncovers evidence that she spouted in the classroom the same hateful rhetoric that she posted on her facebook page, the district can and should punish her. The district may also discipline her if some of these posts were made from a school computer against school policy. Ms. Knox may also be sanctioned if she “pitches a fit” to her supervisor.

On the other hand, almost all of Ms. Knox’s vile facebook comments fall clearly outside of the domain of government speech. Furthermore, her speech is clearly on a matter of public concern, namely, what measures should schools take to promote tolerance and acceptance of LGBT people. Her most offensive remark–comparing homosexuality to cancer–is protected. And “UHS is not the setting to promote, encourage, support, and foster homosexuality” is the sort of expression of political opinion that lies at very the core of First Amendment protection.

Ms. Knox skates on thinner ice when her speech touches on her relationship with her colleagues and her employer. Her remarks about how she was “pitching a fit.” Her poor writing makes some of her comments difficult to parse, but she at one points seems to accuse colleagues of “talking behind backs, calling names, laughing in faces and stabbing in backs.” She appears to suggest that past faculty and adminsitrators were openly racist. Perhaps worst of all, she says that “lesbian gym teachers introduce and experiment with female students/athletes.” These sorts of remarks may well provide grounds for discipline. The school may certainly demand that she explain them.

Other remarks suggest that she has violated school policies. She says that a retired teacher had asked to have her assigned to his building because she “encourage[s] the future generations to seek a relationship with God.” Likewise, in one of her longer rants, she shouts, “THAT’S WHAT I TEACH AND PREACH.” These remarks warrant an investigation to determine whether she has violated school policies. But in that case, it is her conduct in the classroom, and not her speech on facebook, that would warrant discipline.

On its facebook page, Garden State Equality has asserted that Ms. Knox was “acting in her official capacity as a teacher” simply because she identified herself as a teacher. This is a weak argument, because no reasonable person would attribute her words to her employer. Teachers do not typically use facebook as a medium of expression. They do, however, use it for personal purposes, like getting in touch with friends. Indeed, Ms. Knox at one point explicitly says that “[m]y FB page is mine.”

What is more, to subject a public employee’s otherwise private speech to state control whenever the employee identifies her employer and occupation would substantially and unjustifiably restrict the employee’s speech. People often provide this sort information for purposes other than indicating that they are speaking for someone else (for example, to establish credibility or expertise or to provide context).

Some will insist, as the Star Legder does, that the Internet is different. From their own living rooms and bedrooms, students can read what teachers post on social networking websites. If the school district does not filter these websites, they can even access them at school.

I agree that the Internet is different. But these differences do not justify pushing such a broad class of speakers off of the digital soapbox. Indeed, the unique accessibility and reach of social media means that excluding a class of speakers from those forums puts those speakers at particularly acute disadvantage in exercising their First Amendment rights. In any event, the Star Ledger’s rationale that anything posted on the Internet is brought “into the classroom” would justify not only firing Ms. Knox, but censorship of student political speech and even the Ledger’s website itself.

Finally, GSE and others have argued that Ms. Knox should be fired because her opinions will prevent her from effectively doing her job. Many students, gay and straight, may have read Ms. Knox’s posts, and some LGBT students may well have found her tirades distressing and upsetting. Those students will no longer be able to trust her, the argument goes, thus undermining her effectiveness as a teacher. Along a similar vein, GSE has wondered how someone so intolerant can enforce the state’s new anti-bullying law.

If indeed Ms. Knox cannot no longer teach effectively because she made her views public, then the school district must discharge her. But this argument rests on several assumptions. Officials can and do enforce laws they personally don’t support. And while the possibility that students may lose confidence in Ms. Knox is a legitimate concern, it is a problem which can be addressed by less drastic measures. For starters, the district can wait until there is evidence that Ms. Knox’s effectiveness has actually been undermined. In the meantime, it may require Ms. Knox to assure her students that, regardless of her personal beliefs, she will enforce the school’s anti-bullying policies.

This isn’t quite the open-and-shut case that Garden State Equality says it is. And even if the district may fire Ms. Knox without violating the First Amendment, it does not follow that the should fire her, or that Garden State Equality should protest her continued employment. For reasons I will explain in my next diary, GSE’s vengeful, short-sighted response to Ms. Knox’s comments is also a strategic mistake.

Comments (17)

  1. Scott Weingart (Post author)

    …than reports that Viki Knox spouted her bigoted and ignorant ideas in the classroom and violated a student’s First Amendment rights by ordering a student who wore a rainbow bracelet to leave the classroom. If these reports are true, Viki Knox should be fired.

    While this revelation makes most this diary largely academic, the second installment won’t be. I still believe that GSE is in danger of missing an opportunity to work with Union Public School District to reemphasize the district’s LGBT-affirming policy.

    Reply
  2. Babs NJSD

    as well as in public, and the best thing you might say about her is that she is stupid and lacks judgement.

    So take your pick, stupid, lacks judgement, biased… anyway you spin it…. she should be fired

    Reply
  3. Steven Goldstein, Garden State Equality chair

    … just as we believed her when she wrote on Facebook that she teaches what she believes.  Tonight came the first stories from students of that being the case.  There’s more to come.  

    Reply
  4. Jeff Gardner

    Even before the emerging facts of this case rendered this diary purely academic (and before we were made aware that in fact GSE is actively working with the school district on strengthening its LGBT-affirming policy, making the second installment appear moot as well), there is a larger point being missed.

    GSE is not “the decider” in this case, but an advocate. An advocate against what it saw as (and what we all now know was) virulent bigotry publicly expressed by a teacher in a public school classroom. And in that role, GSE’s publicizing, protesting, and calling for immediate action from the school district was spot on.

    Reply
  5. Jay Lassiter

    Personally i am outraged and  I belive she should be fired. But  I also agree with the writer that the amount of light (versus heat) we bring to a fight matters.  

    Reply
  6. Matthew Jordan

    this piece is well-written and thought out.  By far one of the best pieces I’ve read anywhere analyzing this situation.  

    One of the many reasons why I come back to Blue Jersey consistently for my news.  

    Great job Scott.  

    Reply
  7. Rosi Efthim

    will come, most likely, tomorrow.  

    Reply

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