Are teachers private citizens? Do they have free speech?: A Big Dig Investigative Project


Because of a comment she had posted on Facebook, Brooklyn math teacher Christine Rubino could possibly be dismissed.

Because of a comment she had posted on Facebook, Brooklyn math teacher Christine Rubino could possibly be dismissed.

On June 23, 2010, Brooklyn math teacher Christine Rubino had enough of her students’ rowdy behavior. When class ended, she stormed out of her school, turned on her BlackBerry and logged on to Facebook. “After today, I’m thinking the beach is a good trip for my class. I hate their guts,” Rubino posted.

Several minutes later, one of her Facebook friends responded, “Wouldn’t you throw a life jacket to little Kwami?”

“No, I wouldn’t for a million dollars,” Rubino replied back, thinking her post was made in private and would not go beyond her Facebook circle of friends. She was wrong.

A fellow teacher— one of Rubino’s 11 school-related Facebook friends— saw the post and reported her to the school’s assistant principal. Shortly thereafter, the news reached the principal who suspended Rubino from classroom instruction. In December, Rubino insisted the comments she made were in private and unseen by both students and parents.

While the teacher later told the New York Post that “she loves her job,” and “would never take her class to the beach and hurt them,” the Post had reported her comments were alluding to a shocking death of a student the day before, where a 12-year-old girl from Harlem had drowned while on a class trip to Long Island Beach. Rubino, who along with her principal and lawyer could not be reached for comment, are now awaiting a New York City Department of Education hearing.

Regardless of whether or not Rubino truly meant what she said in her Facebook post, this scenario prompts the serious question about where teachers’ freedom of speech lies. Should teachers be considered private citizens when they step out of the classroom? Should they be held accountable for their private thoughts?

Upon hearing about Rubino’s case, parents have been generally outraged. Joanne Rizzi, who personally witnessed the drowning of the 12 year-old Harlem girl at Long Island Beach, was horrified when asked about the Rubino case. “She should be fired! She’s a role model with questionable morals. My kid is so scared of the water now that she won’t even go to the beach! And for [Rubino] to publish her secret fantasy, regardless if she meant it or not, that’s just poor judgment,” Rizzi said.

Facebook has changed much since its inception and has prompted many questions about privacy.

Facebook has changed much since its inception and has prompted many questions about privacy.

When asked if this event will change their Facebook habits, teachers’ responses have varied. A California high school Spanish teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous, explained she had always had a rule before adding any students. For students to be her friend, they must have graduated, received their final report card and have turned 18. “But even then, I hesitate because I know once I post something up, I have no control over what happens,” she said. “I could delete my Facebook but I won’t because I’ve looked through my friend list and I know if I deleted my Facebook I would lose contact with all of my family and cousins who are so in-tuned with Facebook. Instead I just changed my name.”

On the other hand, Beth Casey-Smith, a Family and Consumer Sciences teacher in Connecticut said, “[Rubino’s case] doesn’t scare me and won’t change how I use Facebook. I know what I say, but I still prefer the old-fashioned face-to-face interactions because a post gets misinterpreted.”

Misinterpretation is a common concern for teachers because there aren’t clearly defined boundaries about what a teacher can or cannot say as a teacher outside of the classroom. Together, they have begun urging teacher unions to start thinking about new laws of protection.

The American Federation of Teachers Union does agree there needs to be an outlet for teachers to voice their personal opinions, but the Internet should not be this outlet. “Just don’t do it,” advised a brochure provided by the Educational Issues Department. Because of the way technology is used today, using the Internet as a forum to expression opinions is not advisable, instead teachers are advised to discuss matters with their respective union representatives.

Students have more mixed feelings about where their teachers should be looking for help in dealing with their frustrations.

High school senior Cris Lorca from Harlem, New York said, “The first thing that came to my mind was that she was angry, and she should be fired. If she feels that way, she shouldn’t be teaching. You should love what you do.” As a student, Lorca feels that good teachers should have enough trust in their students to be willing to share why they would be mad. “She should just talk to us. This just makes me lose trust in her.”

However, high school senior Stacey Yu from Hacienda Heights, California has different feelings, “This does make me question her intentions,” said Yu. “But they have the right to vent. This is their private Facebook. It’s distasteful because teacher-student relationships are intimate. But I understand they are human beings too. A healthier way of venting is talking in the staff room. If anything, school psychologists are there for you.”

Nancy Patterson, P.h.D., an Associate Professor at the School of Teaching and Learning at the College of Education and Human Development at Bowling Green University explains, however, that in a world where technology is being incorporated into classroom curriculum, laws about censorship and reaching out to students can be very unclear. In addition to battling what to say outside classrooms, teachers get reprimanded for what they say inside classrooms.

The 2006 Supreme Court ruled in the Garcetti vs. Ceballos case that public officials, when making job-duty speeches, lose their rights to First Amendment free speech and must show proper employee discipline.

Since then, teachers have been defined as public officials and have been prohibited from sharing personal viewpoints in class. In 2007, an Indiana teacher, whose name has not been disclosed, was dismissed for sharing her views against the Iraq war in a class discussion of current events. The Seventh Circuit ruled that in this setting, the teacher’s speech was not protected by the First Amendment because she was speaking on behalf as a public official.

When teachers tried to reach out to students on the Internet, they, too, have been reprimanded. In 2008, the United States District Court of Connecticut ruled against high school teacher Jeffrey Spanierman, who created a MySpace page to communicate with students about homework. A fellow teacher had complained about what he considered to be an inappropriate comment. The school released a statement citing that Spanierman had “exercised poor judgment,” and was dismissed. The Court heard Spanierman’s countersuit claiming that the school had no right to terminate his employment because his comments were made outside of the classroom. But the court ruled in favor of the school because neither the Connecticut Teachers’ Statute nor the teachers’ union-negotiated agreement required schools to provide a reason for not renewing the contract of a nontenured teacher. Spanierman lost the case and because he was still speaking as a public official online, he surrendered his first amendment rights and should remain professional judgment.

Patterson, who organizes an annual conference on teachers’ freedom of speech in Washington D.C., urges teachers to join an association because it affords them a support system and an outlet to vent their frustrations. “By talking to administrators and state organizations, teachers can find other people to talk to and through a network, find ways to figure out what works,” said Patterson. “[An association] is like free therapy.”

Through her research in urban schools, she also found that when teachers of all subjects work together and share the same kids, student performance improved and teacher stress decreased. “When a kid acts out, it’s not just in one class. It’s usually in someone else’s too,” said Patterson. “So when all the teachers sit down with the parents, they can work together because ultimately parents, administrators and teachers all shape students— not just any one of them.”

Because teachers are constantly abiding by different rules in and out of the classroom, many teachers come to feel a sense of frustration with the censorship. The American Psychological Association claims, however, that when anger is turned inward, it may cause “hypertension, high blood pressure, or depression.” Unexpressed anger can create other problems. According to the APA’s website, “it can lead to pathological expressions of anger, such as passive-aggressive behavior, or a personality who constantly puts others down.”

Does everything really get better with time?

Does everything really get better with time?

Since it is unclear as to whether or not it is appropriate for teachers to say anything, what is the appropriate way of releasing this anger and frustration? “Ultimately everyone has different ways of dealing with anger,” said Ben Wilkowski, Association Professor at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in anger studies. “You are more likely to do what you were taught to do.”

But Wilkowski asserts the age-old-saying that time heals all wounds; he said, “Ultimately everything gets better with time.” We will just have to wait and see if Rubino’s situation will get better with time.

VIDEO: Big Dig Reflection

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