Politics in the Classroom: What Can Teachers Say?


Cartoon by Erlein Tacastacas

Last month, Ohioans voted down Senate Bill 5, which had become Issue 2 on the ballot and would have had a major impact on public employees in the state. During the controversy, many teachers expressed their opposition to Issue 2 by wearing buttons and by placing signs on the walls of their classroom.

When BHS Principal Robert Hardis asked teachers to remove their signs, some began to question the rights of teachers to express personal political views in the classroom.

According to Hardis, although there is a place for political discussion within the classroom, expressing views based on partisan opinion is prohibited.

“Although teachers shouldn’t be allowed to express their personal views, they may present both sides as part of a lesson,” said Hardis.

English teacher Peter Harvan, BHS building rep. for the Beachwood Federation of Teachers (BFT), did not dispute Hardis’s request. Harvan had an anti-Issue 2 poster on display in his classroom. Like many teachers, Harvan also sported the same message in the form of a button on his clothing.

Harvan said, “My chest is my property, and this wall is the community’s property– and I had no problem removing the sign.” Harvan continued, “There’s a thin line between teaching [about political issues] and espousing your own political views. When you start to preach rather than teach, there’s a problem with that.”

Science teacher Joe Burwell, the grievance chairperson for the BFT, wrote an email describing the circumstances in which political discussion might arise in the classroom. “A student may ask a question that has some direct or tangential relevance to the class topic of discussion, and a teacher could either decide to answer it directly, or allow the student to elaborate. There can be an opportunity for learning there.”

Burwell continued, “Often a teacher will choose not to address the question if it is not relevant to course objectives.”

While teachers are not allowed to freely express political views–as they may affect the opinions of students–a student is within his or her rights to express political views in the classroom, as long as it doesn’t disrupt the learning environment.

Freshman Jon Shapiro is the co-president of the BHS Young Republicans Club, which consists of himself and three other students. Jon and his friends were seen picketing for State Issue 2 at Hilltop Elementary School on election day last month.

Even he disagreed with most teachers about Issue 2, Shapiro believes that teachers should have the right to free speech. “According to the constitution, everyone should have the right to take a stand on an issue, as long as it doesn’t interfere with how they are doing their job,” he said.

Shapiro also said, “I think that in some cases, teachers—without knowing it or doing it on purpose—may judge assignments based on the student’s opinions that may or may not conflict with the teacher’s opinion.”

Shapiro feels that teachers treat students differently based on their political views. “They might be less willing to entertain an argument,” he said.

He continued,  “I believe that if the true goal of school is to prepare us for the future, then politics DO belong in school. [However,] I do not think that teachers have the right to punish those with different views. Teachers can have their views and should have their views but that should not influence students.”

Sophomore Scott Arkin opposed State Issue 2 last month; however, he agrees with Shapiro’s position on political discussion in a school setting. He wrote in an email, “In many classes, it is appropriate to hold political discussions,” explained Arkin. “Such engagement spurs thought and reflection in students. This being said, teachers should not attempt to impose their views on students.”

Arkin agreed with others about the distinction between buttons and posters. “A button is worn on the teacher’s body, making it [his or her] personal view. Just as if a teacher wore a sports jersey, it is his or her personal opinion to root for that team and does no reflect on class lessons. A sign, however, is in the same category as things like periodic tables and educational posters, [suggesting that the view expressed] by the sign is the political angle of the class. This is inappropriate, because class criteria should not express or appear to express any political bias.”

In 2007, in the case of Deborah Mayer v. the Monroe County School District, a federal court ruled against a teacher who was not rehired after a controversy caused by her distribution of a Time magazine article about opposition to the war in Iraq. Although this most likely wouldn’t be an issue in Beachwood, it was an issue in Monroe County, Indiana and led to the teacher filing a suit against the district, which she lost, supporting the precedent that public school employees have a curriculum that is defined by the school district.

In the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a student has the right to display political messages on clothing, as long as it does not create a disruption in the classroom. A very similar rule is applied to teachers and students in Beachwood and around the country. As long as the learning process is not affected, then it is permitted for a teacher to wear a button or armband on their clothing expressing political views.

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