Sunday, May 13, 2007
GA: School bus driver firing raises new First Amendment questions for gays in "sensitive" jobs
Ryan Lee has a story in the May 11 2007 Washington Blade, p. 31, “Your Boss Is Watching: Experts Avoid Caution When Posting Ads on Gay Internet Dating Sites.” The story originally appeared in "Southern Voice" on May 4. There is a comparable story on "Pam's House" at this link, which gives some other disquieting stories about teachers and personal profiles (which have in a few cases been made up by students).
The detailed story concerns a school bus driver in Henry County, GA, who was first questioned and then terminated by the public school district for posting an ad on a gay dating site on the Internet, that had been found in 2004 on Bear411.com by a parent. He was terminated “for the best interests of the school system” in June 2006.
It’s important that the driver did not use school computers or facilities in any way. All of the postings were done on his own time with his own hardware and software. The ad also apparent sought only legal adult partners, and should not be confused with the issues presented by recent NBC Dateline stings.
Teachers have been fired for being found involved with pornography, and in once case on the Dr. Phil show there was a teacher whose contract could not be renewed for having been a nude model 11 years earlier. All of these raise First Amendment questions that have been discussed elsewhere on these blogs.
However, this was a case with a school bus driver, who does not have the authority to grade or make decisions about students (other than immediate safety issues on the bus). A similar concern could exist for short term substitute teachers and assistants, who do not have meaningful authority over the lives of students in the long run.
The Blade story notes that teachers often post (usually heterosexual) personals and other materials on the web and are typically left alone. The story suggests that the bus driver was fired for being gay, or for saying so publicly, as with a “don’t ask don’t tell” philosophy.
Legal literature, although obscure from the public’s point of view, supports the idea that teachers are not supposed to disclose “personal” information in public spaces at all, because of the way they may perceived in their role as authority figures by students (and, given social context, the remote possibility that students could regard such postings as enticing). Of course, teachers have conventional “family pictures” and other non-controversial material on the web (and on their desks in classrooms) all the time.
Similarly, the story notes that the military has often discharged servicemembers for saying that they are gay on the public Internet, after going on fishing expeditions with search engines.
Of course, many legal experts recommend anonymity on the web for people in sensitive positions, and the ACLU has vigorously defended anonymous speech. Yet, the need to remain anonymous is a concession to inferior social or political status.
The Web, with its possibility of offering instant worldwide audience by “astral projection” raises serious new questions about equality and personal worthiness in a world where the social limits created by family responsibility have long been melting away. First Amendment cases whose parameters could have barely been conceived of ten years ago will come up, and COPA was only the beginning.