As GetReligion readers know, I am about as pro-free speech as you can get, even pro-offensive speech in the tense world of religion and politics. I even think that the U.S. military doesn’t need to mandate a kind of lowest-common-denominator Unitarianism, funding with tax dollars. I’m a radical.
So I have some pretty conflicted feelings about a fascinating free-speech case unfolding out in the Cherry Creek School District in my old stomping grounds of Denver. This is the case in which the social-studies teacher delivered an anti-President Bush sermon that ended up, in the age of digital recorders in every backback, reaching the whole world. (Let’s assume it was an iTalk or an iTalk-like device.)
Of course, you can also listen to the sermon and make up your own mind.
Here is the top of the Los Angeles Times story, for those who want to catch up:
It was the day after President Bush’s State of the Union address, and social studies teacher Jay Bennish was warning his world geography class not to be taken in.
“Sounds a lot like the things that Adolf Hitler used to say,” Bennish told students at the suburban high school Feb. 2. “‘We’re the only ones who are right, everyone else is backward and our job is to conquer the world.’”
The teacher quickly made clear that he wasn’t equating Bush with Hitler, but the damage was done. A sophomore in the class had recorded the lecture on an MP3 player, and turned it over this week to a local conservative talk radio show.
So the teacher is on leave, lawyers are circling and the student who made the recording is getting all kinds of threats. The boy’s father and mother are not amused.
… Jeff Allen, 50, who works for Buena Vista Games, the video game arm of the Walt Disney Co., said the family is strongly behind Sean, a budding stand-up comic who lives in a typical, covenant-controlled neighborhood in Aurora. He said that even Sean’s mother, Patti Allen, 52, a registered Democrat, is supporting her son “100 percent.”
“She’s a Democrat; she’s not a lib,” Allen said. …
“Regardless of party affiliation, there are certain things that don’t belong in the classroom,” Scott Thornton, Sean’s 24-year-old half-brother, said about his mother’s position. “Mr. Bennish’s comments were inappropriate and radical. She feels ultimately that Sean made the right decision.”
The key, to me, is whether Bennish’s rant was part of a consistent pattern of behavior in the classroom in which he verbally beat up on students who disagreed with him or, worst of all, docked their grades for views that he felt were too conservative or traditional.
But you also have to wonder: What would have happened if a teacher had voiced similar views, only coming from a politically or even morally conservative point of view? What would have happened if he had preached in favor of, oh, a conservative stance on a religious/moral/political issue instead of against the political right?
It seems the teacher managed to steer clear of religious and cultural issues, which is almost impossible to do in this day and age.
Or did he? Listen to the recording and try to imagine a teacher trying to get away with a sermon like this on, on, Hillary Clinton.
But the most explosive issue for educators is even more basic. Here’s the big question: Was the student wrong to give us the option of listening in?