Speak, but don’t express your opinion

The e-mail sent last week to 3,800 Washoe County teachers wasn’t quite a gag rule. It was more of a reminder that “the classroom is not the place for educators to express our personal political opinions about the impending war with Iraq.”

The sender was Steve Mulvenon, Washoe County School District director of communications. Impelled by national news concerning teachers in Maine who condemned the war as immoral and unethical, Mulvenon reminded teachers that, as in Maine, kids whose parents have been deployed to the Persian Gulf sit in Nevada’s classrooms, and derogatory comments about the war are “insensitive, inappropriate and uncaring.”

“A teacher’s job is to present facts on both sides of the controversial issue,” he said, “not to try to impose his or her view on students.”

But Launie Gardner and students from her two history classes at TMCC High School read the message as an attempt to censor free expression. She said that, of 65 students, only one fully agreed with Mulvenon. Gardner sent a letter detailing her complaint to several dozen teachers. Half thought she had misjudged Mulvenon’s intent; half thought her complaints were justified.

Mulvenon sent Gardner a second e-mail to clarify the district’s position. He never meant to say that teachers couldn’t express opinions in classrooms. He will visit Gardner’s classes on March 28 to discuss censorship and student rights.

“I have to give him a lot of credit for that,” Gardner said. “[His message] could’ve truly been an honest misuse of words.” Still, she said, it’s important to express concerns. “When nothing is said, silence becomes accepted.”

Mulvenon emphasized that his sending the message was not a unilateral decision. Before sending it to the district’s 86 principals, he sent a draft to the superintendent, the human resources director and the executive director of the Washoe County Education Association asking if the message needed changes and if the message should be sent at all. They agreed that it should.

David Fullenwider, Pine Middle School principal, forwarded the message to all his teachers but said they “should follow common sense, not rules.”

“It’s fine for a teacher to express opinions about the war,” as long as an opinion is germane to a classroom discussion, he said. “But I would be upset if a teacher used his or her position as a soapbox. Teachers are entitled to their First Amendment rights but also have a responsibility to the kids. As long as teachers do something in the best interest of the students, I’m behind them.”

But, Mulvenon said, there’s a huge difference between a public school teacher’s autonomy and that of a university instructor.

“While college professors have virtually unlimited freedom, what teachers in public schools teach is strictly limited and controlled,” he said.

If he were standing in front of the classroom and the kids asked him his opinion on a controversial topic, he would reply, “It doesn’t matter what I think. I’m trying to get you to arrive at your own conclusions”—thus illustrating the skill required to speak while holding the tongue.