By Matthew Rothschild on March 24, 2006

Here's an update on Deb Mayer, the teacher who said her contract was not renewed because she answered a student's question about whether she would participate in a demonstration for peace. (See “Teacher Awaits Day in Court.”)

Her case involves an incident that occurred on January 10, 2003, at Clear Creek Elementary School in Bloomington, Indiana.

The students were reading an article in Time for Kids about peace protests. She responded to the student’s question by saying she sometimes honks for peace and that it’s important to seek out peaceful solutions both on the playground and in society. Afterwards, the parents of one of the students got angry and insisted that she not speak about peace again in the classroom. Mayer’s principal so ordered her.

When the school district did not renew Mayer’s contract at the end of the semester, she sued for wrongful termination and for violation of her First Amendment rights.

On March 10, Judge Sarah Evans Barker dismissed Mayer’s case, granting summary judgment to the defendants.

The judge said the school district was within its rights to terminate Mayer because of various complaints it received from parents about her teaching performance.

But beyond that, Judge Barker ruled that “teachers, including Ms. Mayer, do not have a right under the First Amendment to express their opinions with their students during the instructional period.”

The judge ruled that “school officials are free to adopt regulations prohibiting classroom discussion of the war,” and that “the fact that Ms. Mayer’s January 10, 2003, comments were made prior to any prohibitions by school officials does not establish that she had a First Amendment right to make those comments in the first place.” The judge also implied that Mayer, by making her comments, was attempting to “arrogate control of the curricula.”

And the judge gave enormous leeway to school districts to limit teachers’ speech in the classroom.

“Whatever the school board adopts as policy regarding what teachers are permitted to express in terms of their opinions on current events during the instructional period, that policy controls, and there is no First Amendment right permitting teachers to do otherwise,” Judge Barker wrote.

The judge “has simply gotten the law wrong,” says Michael Schultz, Mayer’s attorney. “There is a long line of authority that teachers do not check their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door. And, in this case, Ms. Mayer was asked for her opinion in the context of teaching the approved curriculum. She only gave her opinion in a very appropriate, limited way and then related the issue to the students' lives (i.e., on the playground), and then moved on in the lesson. If giving one's opinion in response to a legitimate (and predictable) question is fair game for making a decision to terminate a teacher, who will want to teach? And, more importantly, what impact will this state of affairs have on the quality of instruction?”

Mayer says she’s going to appeal. “It’s too important not to,” she says. “Teachers everywhere are at risk because of what this judge has said.”

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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