Opinion

School District Faces Choice: Respect Free Speech or Crush Dissent

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Posted: Oct 06, 2021 12:01 AM
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A Virginia school district has made a lot of national news lately. Many teachers, parents, students, and community members disagree with Loudoun County Public Schools’ adoption of policies that force teachers to promote radical ideologies that they believe will harm students and further divide the school community. Several of these courageous citizens have publicly expressed their disapproval of these policies at school board meetings.

One of those citizens, LCPS elementary school teacher Tanner Cross, was suspended after he spoke in opposition to a proposed policy that would force teachers to refer to “gender-expansive or transgender” students using any pronoun of the student’s choice regardless of whether the pronoun is consistent with the student’s biological sex. After Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing Cross sued LCPS for violating his constitutional rights, a Loudoun County District Court ordered the school board to reinstate him while the lawsuit proceeds. The Virginia Supreme Court recently affirmed this decision.

In response to all this public opposition, LCPS recently revised Policy 7560, which governs the Professional Conduct of LCPS employees. Several news outlets have lauded this new policy as protecting the free speech rights of those employees. Indeed, the policy acknowledges that “nothing in this policy or any other policy shall be interpreted as abridging an employee’s First Amendment right to engage in protected speech.” But this is simply a truism. No government official has the authority to enforce a policy in a manner that violates its employees’ constitutionally protected freedoms.

The real test lies in how LCPS chooses to enforce two new provisions of the policy. The first prohibits “behavior and language that denigrates or demeans individuals” based on certain protected categories. The second requires all employees “to support the school division’s commitment to action-oriented equity and nondiscrimination practices.” We can all agree that every LCPS student and employee should be treated with dignity and respect. And no student should denigrated, demeaned, or be subjected to discrimination solely because they are a member of a certain group. But there is a stark difference between those acts and conscientious disagreement.

Many LCPS teachers and staff have legitimate concerns about certain policies that LCPS has adopted. They believe that these policies will harm students by promoting ideologies that are untrue and divisive. Public school teachers must retain the right to speak out against policies that they believe will be harmful to their students. LCPS cannot hide behind the guise of “professionalism” to punish teachers simply because they express disagreement with its policies. The revisions to Policy 7560, however, open the door to such coercion.

The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized the importance of protecting teachers’ First Amendment rights. More than 60 years ago in Sweezy v. New Hampshire, the court penned these memorable lines: “The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. . . . Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise, our civilization will stagnate and die.”

This is especially true for those with minority views: “History has amply proved the virtue of political activity by minority, dissident groups, who innumerable times have been in the vanguard of democratic thought and whose programs were ultimately accepted. Mere unorthodoxy or dissent from the prevailing mores is not to be condemned. The absence of such voices would be a symptom of grave illness in our society.”

As the Supreme Court wisely recognized, dissent is a sign of a healthy democracy. Enforced silence is sign of “grave illness.”

LCPS faces a choice. Its new policy purports to protect free speech but also provides the tools for LCPS to crush dissent. LCPS can either use the new policy to create a healthy, vibrant community by welcoming the opinion of all teachers and staff, regardless of whether they agree with school policies, or it can punish dissent through coercion and force. For the health of the county’s schools and community, let’s hope that LCPS chooses wisely.