Colorado high school geography teacher Jay Bennish plans to bring suit in federal court in order to be re-instated in the classroom after he was suspended for comments he made during a class lecture. Bennish is being represented by attorney David Lane, who also represented Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor who received national notoriety when he compared Americans killed on 9/11 to Nazis.
In an interview on Denver's CBS 4, Lane inadvertently revealed the weakness in his client's case. According to Lane, Bennish's remarks are protected speech-as long as they fit within the curriculum of his class. How a twenty-minute stream-of-consciousness leftist diatribe falls within the rubric of a high school geography class escapes me, so it will be interesting to see how the court rules.
Of course, the key rests in defining the nature of the speech at hand. I was most taken aback by Bennish's absurd and off-topic smears against America and the free market, but the media seems to be highlighting the more concrete remarks against George Bush. I suspect Bennish's attorney will claim that is was those remarks alone that earned Bennish his suspension. As "political speech," Bennish's attorney will argue his client's remarks are protected.
Yet this is not the real question at bar. The real question is simply does an employer have a right to sanction an employee for inappropriate comments that stray from the task at hand. The proper view is to take Bennish in his entire context and determine if his employers have any cause to dissatisfied with any aspect of his performance as teacher. I think it's clear that Bennish's employers have every right to be upset with his conduct and sanction him accordingly. Bennish is free to let loose his diatribes on his own time, but he has no right to demand a captive audience of high-school students.
It will be bad news for education if Bennish wins re-instatement. In essence, the court will have ruled that a high-school teacher has no professional responsibility to follow the school curriculum and that school administrators cannot admonish teachers who bring inappropriate and off-topic opinions into their classrooms.
The tragedy is the whatever the court's decision, the real question behind this debate-which is the legitimacy of the public schools themselves-will yet again be evaded.