Last week, I criticized impatient calls for firing homophobic high school teacher Viki Knox as disregarding free speech rights of teachers. Today, I will explain why this approach is a strategical mistake.
Last fall, Rutgers University Freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington bridge after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, secretly filmed Clementi having a intimate encounter with another man. Just like it’s doing with Mrs. Knox now, Garden State Equality demanded that Ravi and his friend, Molly Wei, who also viewed the video, be punsihed to the fullest extent of the law. GSE did not escape criticism for its statements; a group of Rutgers students and faculty condemned what it saw as calls for vengeance. Instead, they argued, the Clementi tragedy highlighted the need for broader conversation addressing unacknowledged prejudices in the Rutgers community and in society at large. Instead of joining calls for Ravi and Wei’s punishment, they demanded policy changes at the university, including the establishment of gender-neutral housing, to create a more positive atmosphere for LGBT students. At the time, GSE dismissed them as “radical fringe group.” But last March, Rutgers announced that it would allow gender-neutral housing.
But to compare Garden State Equality’s response to Knox incident with its response to the Clementi tragedy is unfair. GSE’s statements about Ravi and Wei were infrequent and often responsive to media inquiries. Instead of organizing protests to call for the heads of the guilty, they organized town hall meetings to remember Tyler Clementi and to discuss issues of anti-gay bullying in particular and bullying in general. Instead of focusing on what the perpetrators did in the past, they focused on what should be done to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Thanks in large part to GSE’s efforts, New Jersey now has one of the strongest anti-bulling laws in the country. With Knox, on the other hand, the public message has focused solely on punishing the accused.
Garden State Equality has two options in crafting its public message in response to the Viki Knox facebook posts. One approach, the one GSE has taken so far, is to seek retribution against the teacher for expressing her ignorant views. This approach is short-sighted. The better approach is the one they employed in response to the Tyler Clementi tragedy: to use the incident to highlight the importance of school policies that support and affirm LGBT students across the state. This message is superior because it is relevant to all schools, rather than just this school; because it focuses on LGBT students, rather than homophobic teachers; because it avoids needless First Amendment costs; and because it unites, rather than divides, supporters of gay rights.
GSE insists it can promote affirming policies to school officials while advocating for Knox’s firing in public. And it is certainly doing that here. But I’m concerned here with GSE’s public message, not with what it says in smoke-filled rooms. In a state with 649 school districts, lobbying in the halls of power is a painstaking and expensive strategy. By supporting a forward-looking narrative, GSE can make this incident a teachable moment for school district administrators across the state. Furthermore, to the extent that any organization pushes consistent messages in the streets and the halls of power, the force of the message in both places is enhanced.
GSE’s public message ignores the forest of school policies toward LGBT students for a single rotten tree. It has cast itself as chief public prosecutor in administrative discharge proceedings against Ms. Knox. It is far from clear that the benefit of officiously intervening in a school’s personnel affairs justifies the expenses and energy invested in it. Perhaps it will lead to harsher punishment of Ms. Knox. But given the seriousness of the allegations against Ms. Knox-she allegedly kicked a student out of class for wearing a rainbow bracelet, clearly a violation of the First Amendment-the school district has plenty of incentive to fire her. And while punishing Ms. Knox might send a message to teachers who share similar views, the content of this message must necessarily be limited: keep your bigoted views out of the classroom.
A constructive message has the potential reap much more meaningful benefits for gay and lesbian students across the state. Publicly lauding Union Township School District for its affirming policies (did your high school publicly and prominently recognize the contributions of gays and lesbians to society?) would encourage other schools to emulate them. This is not to say that Ms. Knox’s comments should go unanswered. Condemnation of Ms. Knox’s hateful remarks is entirely appropriate, and it is important to emphasize that there is no place for them in the classroom. But it is a significant step from publicly condemning bigotry to publicly demanding punishment for it. And here, Garden State Equality has organized its public message almost exclusively around a theme of vengeance.
GSE also strays from its interests and expertise when it injects itself into the disciplinary process. School personnel matters implicate considerations that have little to do with the GSE’s mission. Likewise, the number of protesters outside of a school board meeting is not a particularly relevant factor to whether or how Mrs. Knox should be disciplined. Conversely, there is no better organization in this state to help school districts craft an accepting and affirming message that values LGBT students for who they are and makes clear that homophobia will not be tolerated inside the schoolhouse gate.
GSE’s approach elevates the relevance of homophobic teachers and draws attention to their message by making them the center of discussion. The approach I suggest makes them irrelevant by excluding their bigoted speech from the classroom, where they have no right to offer it. Instead, it focuses on those we’re trying to support: LGBT students.
GSE’s approach needlessly and unfortunately risked pitting the rights of LGBT students against the rights of teachers. In this instance, that risk didn’t materialize, because the teacher brought her bigoted views into the classroom. But if a teacher’s only offense is sharing her opinions when she’s off the job, the teacher’s First Amendment rights will generally take priority. Thus, when the rights of LGBT students and homophobic teachers conflict, the teachers’ rights will sometimes prevail, and when they do, the students’ rights will appear to be diminished. Any effort to use the coercive power of the state to fight bigotry must ultimately fail. As Kathleen O’Brien pointed out in her well-reasoned column in the Star-Ledger, “gay students may come to understand that while they must be tolerated, the state cannot force anyone to accept them.” What is more, the organization’s confrontational stance allows those who share Mrs. Knox’s views to deploy the rhetoric of victimhood.
A more positive approach would emphasize the rights of LGBT students without disparaging teachers’ free speech rights. As I noted in my last diary, if schools prescribe an LGBT-affirming message, teachers must stick to that message when they’re in the classroom. Furthermore, schools may, as Union Township High School has done, take additional steps to create a welcoming and affirming environment for gay and lesbian students.
By casting the dispute in Manichean terms, GSE drives a deep wedge into its own base. Many LGBT people and allies care deeply about civil liberties. While, at least in this case, it appears that Mrs. Knox brought her hateful views into the classroom where she does not have the right to express them, GSE did not wait until this evidence surfaced to demand her firing. What civil libertarians saw was an attempt to employ state power to proscribe out-of-school speech. It is no surprise, then, that they did not join the cries for punishment. Furthermore, even setting speech aside, Viki Knox has a right to a due process hearing before the school district may take disciplinary action against her. A responsive, rather than reactive approach would avoid this division. It would make diaries like this one unnecessary.
Although the Fire Viki Knox movement has gone national, there is still time for GSE to correct its errant course. If it adopts the same sort of strategy that it pursued in the wake of the Tyler Clementi suicide, I am confident that it will succeed in making schools across New Jersey into better places for LGBT students. But if it continues to focus its public message on Mrs. Knox, it will have wasted what might have been an important teachable moment for New Jersey schools, teachers, and students alike.