Saturday, March 19, 2011

Dragged from the classroom? One teacher's lonely battle for free speech rights

A few years ago, somewhere on our great continent, a teacher showed a documentary critical of religious fundamentalism to his Grade 9 class. The next day, the Vice-Principal threatened to remove the teacher from the classroom if he continued to show the film.

Did this happen in Arizona? Idaho? Elsewhere in the Bible Belt of the United States, perhaps? Not at all--this event, which touched off a teacher's lonely, quixotic, twenty-year battle for his own free expression rights, happened in Canada's tiniest, sleepiest province, Prince Edward Island. The story that subsequently unfolded is both a triumph of principle and a human tragedy.

In 1988, Richard Morin, a Grade 9 teacher in Charlottetown, PEI, decided to a BBC documentary, Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done, to his students. He had seen it broadcast and taped it, and he thought that it would be useful for a project that his students were doing, "What Religion Means to Different People."

The response to Morin's decision to show the film was swift. Several parents called to complain about the film, and the vice-principal ordered Morin to stop showing the film. After he protested this decision to his principal, who stood firm in suspending the film, Morin went on sick leave. A few months later, the curriculum committee of the local school board upheld the cancellation of Morin's religion assignment, and Morin was placed on administrative leave for the remainder of the year. The next year, despite wishing to return to his job, he was not rehired.

After losing his job, Morin began what would turn out to be a twenty-year legal odyssey by launching a suit against the board. Among other things, he alleged that his free expression rights had been infringed upon when the school administration had elected to suspend the showing of the film.

Morin lost his initial trial in 1999, but his claim about his free expression rights was eventually upheld, in 2002, by a Prince Edward Island Court of Appeal decision. This court decision makes for fascinating reading--Justice L.K. Webber excoriated the school board and offered a staunch defense of Morin's free speech rights.  Not only did she suggest that Morin had a right to show the film, but she also suggested that the students had a right to hear it:
[Morin] wanted to show the film “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done” and have the students use it as a catalyst to interview other people and consider and write about the topic “What Religion Means to Different People”. Learning the skills of critical thinking and interviewing are essential in enabling students to seek the truth in any area of life. These skills were part of the goals of the established curriculum. The subject matter required consideration of political, social and religious values and how they can be intertwined and impact upon one another. Such an exercise can only enhance the students’ ability to participate effectively in social and political decision-making and their ability to seek and find the truth...Far more than the right expressed in the commercial expression cases, this right of students is fundamental to their being citizens in a truly democratic state and students of that state’s educational system. The proposed project would assist students in learning how to seek and attain the truth about any particular activity.
Beyond this, Justice Webber also took the school board to task for its claim that free expression rights simply did not apply to the classroom. In a memorable quote, she remarked:
Surely teachers engaged in their profession of teaching can’t be found to have no right of free expression, while advertisers do have such a right, and even prostitutes carrying out their profession have such a right.
Thus, fourteen years after his ill-fated decision to show the film, Morin was vindicated. However, despite his triumph in the courts, the case had a devastating impact beyond the classroom. Morin was never able to find another teaching job--he may have received bad references from his previous employers. His marriage fell apart, and his court case, in which he represented himself, consumed a great deal of his time and energy.  In the end, after a long fight over court costs, Morin was awarded a paltry $86,000 in 2009. Twenty-one years had elapsed since the initial incident. It was the end of the line for Morin--"There is no other step," he said, "I have brought it as far as I can go."

Notably, although it puts the brakes on the arbitrary restriction of teacher speech, the Morin decision does not signify that Canadian teachers can say whatever they want in the classroom. In a previous post, "A Conspiracy Theorist in the Classroom," I wrote about a case in which a Canadian teacher was successfully prosecuted for hate speech when he taught a "World Jewish Conspiracy" version of the Alberta social studies curriculum.

Yet the intricacies and implications of the Morin decision are interesting, and I have dedicated an entire academic article, "A Right to Speak Out: The Morin Case and its Implications for Teachers' Free Expression," to discussing the questions that the decision raises. For anyone interested in the issue of teacher free speech in Canada and the United States, it makes for a worthwhile read. If, for some reason, you can't download the article, feel free to contact me.

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