Free speech versus dumb speech

Though I am not inclined to give teachers too much autonomy until they start showing signs of it working to improve our schools, Jonathan Zimmerman raises some interesting issues in his When Teachers Talk out of School essay in this morning's Times. Citing cases of teachers censored or dismissed for making Facebook comments about students ?-- ?I hate their guts? or my students are ?rude, disengaged, lazy whiners? -- Zimmerman leads us into more tender, and interesting, territory by mentioning the case of the teacher asking students to read books banned from the school's library. Is this a freedom of speech issue? Zimmerman seems to be on the verge of seeing it as a professional conduct question:

All professionals restrict their own speech, after all, reflecting the special purposes and responsibilities of their occupations. A psychologist should not discuss his patients' darkest secrets on a crowded train, which would violate the trust and confidence they have placed in him. A lawyer should not disparage her clients publicly, because her job is to represent them to the best of her ability.

And he even admits that teachers ?have a responsibility to transmit the topics and principles of the prescribed curriculum.?

Zimmerman then gets a little squishy when he talks about the need for teachers to teach? ?democratic capacities,? including ?reason, debate and tolerance ? so that our children learn to think on their own? ? which sounds like a reasonable part of the curriculum --? but quickly falls into the weeds by concluding that teachers should have a right to ?model those skills? ?by, I assume, saying all kinds of dumb things. It's an interesting argument: we should keep loudmouth teachers in order to teach kids that they too have a right to be loudmouths ? to be, perhaps, rude and lazy whiners. Something tells me that we're already doing quite a fine job of that.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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