A New Jersey administrative law judge recently ruled a tenured first grade teacher should lose her job for a post on Facebook. The Record newspaper, Paterson teacher suspended for Facebook post should be fired, judge rules, reported that Jennifer O’Brian referred to her job as a “warden for future criminals” on Facebook. In addition to finding the comment highly insensitive given the poverty and violence that plagued the school district, Judge Ellen Bass also found the district’s need to operate the school efficiently outweighed Ms. O’Brian’s first amendment’s right to free speech. O’Brien apparently testified that she posted “in exasperation because several students kept disrupting her lessons and one boy had recently hit her.” MSNBC, Judge: Facebook post should cost job of teacher.
The Record reported the following insightful comments by Judge Bass – “O’Brien has demonstrated a complete lack of sensitivity to the world in which her students live. The sentiment that a 6-year-old will not rise above the criminal element that surrounds him cuts right to the bone.”
This comment made me wonder. As a student, would this statement by a teacher affect a student’s hope that you can do anything, be anything? When you were a child would you have been crushed if one of your teachers thought you were predestined to be a criminal? How would I feel, as a parent, if I learned about a teacher referring to my child as a future criminal? I have to admit that it would certainly impact my relationship with that teacher.
My musings aside, I thought there were a few interesting facts in this case. First, that in this day and age, a tenured teacher still lacks the judgment or insight about the reality of posting insensitive and inappropriate remarks on Facebook, i.e. that the consequences might be losing her job. Second, the judge found the efficient operation of the district outweighed the teacher’s right to free speech – a question that has been raised, but not often addressed in the Facebook realm. And finally, that Ms. O’Brien’s tenured status seemingly was not a factor in the decision-making process. This final issue made me wonder about the tenure protections offered by this district. I would normally expect that a tenured teacher might be disciplined, but not terminated for this kind of offense.
It certainly will be interesting to see how the state education commission rules. The state education commissioner has 45 days to accept, reject or modify the decision. We will keep you posted.
Do you think Ms. O’Brian’s tenured status will affect the state education commissioner’s decision? Should it? How should Ms. O’Brian’s first amendment rights play into this? Do you think she should have been fired for her Facebook post?