Speak into the mic: Bush equals Hitler

0 1425 sz 1 i 75069 00As 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.)

You can read the national coverage, here’s Los Angeles Times, or you can read the local, here’s Rocky Mountain News, and you’ll get the same basic facts.

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?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Michael

    What exactly did he “get away with?” He’s on leave, pending the results of an investigation. His reputation has been smeared by local and national radio. He’s been prevented from defending himself by a school-imposed gag order.

  • http://www.yahoo.com mark

    From what I’ve read, Jay Bennish either a) doesn’t possess sufficient observational powers to realize that his adult brain and his position of authority in the classroom wield an overwhelming influence over the opinions of adolescent students, or b) he realizes it fully and is arrogant enough to want to influence them to his immature, destructive way of thinking. He strikes me as the “cool” teacher who “tells it like it is” to his already cynical students. His ilk are corrosive, filling students’ heads with half-truths that will take them years to get over as they learn the other side of the story.
    I had a history teacher in high school (a small, Midwestern rural place) who was one of these “cool” teachers who showed his class “cred” by criticizing administration and authority of all kinds, for instance continually running down Reagan and Republicans of all eras, and praising (!) Stalin and the USSR, describing his wonderful visit to Moscow and taking a safe stroll through the city in the middle of the night. He clearly believed Socialism was the best form of economy/government, and let my class hear about it in glowing half-truths, often citing little-known historical incidents like banana production in Central America to show the “cruel reality” about how awful Capitalism was and how Marx had the better ideas. What right did this ’80s hippy have indoctrinating a roomful of impressionable high school kids (an honors class, no less) with this one-sided view of history? I look back and shudder at how persuasive it was, simply because Mr. X used his mix of selective curricula topics and personal charisma to muddle our thinking. Keep the Jay Bennishes of the world out of the brains of adolescents. As a side note, free speech is often misunderstood as meaning unlimited speech with no harmful consequences to the speaker; however, if others (not the government) take him to task for his message, that is the due consequence, and he should be ready for the results. It is immature and unrealistic to think nobody will find his speech and related action (of speaking it to young people in a classroom setting) worthy of action of their own to stop said speech in that setting.

  • http://fixedandconsidering.typepad.com/a_worthy_message Dan

    From what I understand, this guy’s harangues are a regular occurrence, so he’s “gotten away” with beating up on children for quite some time at taxpayers expense. It’s one thing to encourage honest discourse but that’s not what he was doing. He is the one who smeared his own reputation. The news accounts have merely reported what he said. He already defended himself in the classroom.

    I think the boy was absolutely in his rights to share the tape. A teacher who shoots his mouth off in such a radical way needs to be reminded that he is a public speaker just as if he was putting his rants out on the Internet or in a newspaper for anyone to hear or read.

    One likely difference here is that if he had been a conservative, the teachers union would probably be on the persecuting side and not defending him since it is in the pocket of the Democratic Party (or is it the other way around?).

    Yay for free speech.

  • Tony D.

    Seems to me the only unique thing about this case is the technology. High school teachers airing their opinions in class is nothing new. I was a junior in the early 80s and my history teacher was a strident cold warrior. She made claims about what Marxism was all about that I, having read some Marx and Engels, knew were distortions at best, outright fabrications at worst. I valued my grade and the teacher’s good graces so I never called her on it. (She was a very good teacher otherwise.) I’ve since heard of another student who did, and of course his grade suffered.

    It all boils down to picking your battles. This student decided to pick one, and his timing is very very good; this is a bad time to be an opinionated public school teacher. But there will, and in my opinion should, always be opinionated school teachers (on all sides of the culture wars, ideally).

  • tmatt

    MICHAEL:

    Please note the word “trying” before “to get away with….”

    The story is not over yet, is it?

  • dk

    This sort of teacher/teaching is beyond common on university campuses. You could find plenty of more provocative cases there, especially in the realm of part-timers and graduate students.

  • http://theaccidentalanglican.typepad.com Deborah

    You know, it really makes me sick to hear teachers and professors do the whole “capitalism/democracy/America is evil” thing, then run to the Constitution for protection when they’re outed. This is the main reason I’ll be SO glad to get out of grad school. It’s a constant stream of this anti-America bull.

  • Stephen A.

    The posters above are right. Had this been a Bible-believing, Bush-voting teacher, the knives would be out for trying to “foist their beliefs” onto the kids. But because he’s a Leftist, the brainwashed little kids all walk out to protest “free speech” being threatened (Gotta defend “Free” speech, after all, even if it isn’t responsible or appropriate in this setting.)

    The problem is the double standard, but also the captive audience of kids, many of whom are about to become angry, unthinking anti-Capitalist hate-mongers. They should instead become balanced individuals who can learn about both the good and the bad in capitalism and society as a whole (including religion) and avoid the REAL mistakes of the past, not the dreamt up marxist fantasies of ignorant young teachers.

    (And for the record, I would say the same things if a Right-wing political/religious zealot was doing the preaching in class.)

  • http://BUSY Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Two points: Some so-called educators are totally oblivious to their surroundings and as arrogant and self-righteous in their liberalism as any of the alleged worst on the so-called religious right.
    My son-in-law is a mid-level executive in a paper company. He lives with my daughter and their 4 kids in a town that would cease to exist if it weren’t for the existence of that business. One day one of my granddaughters came home from public school after they had celebrated “Earth Day.” She was all upset as to why her father was such an evil man for working in a job that her teacher said was destroying the planet. Luckily, my son-in-law is quite calm and laid back. However, if it had been me who had been so slandered by a teacher over politics I would have been tempted to make sure he didn’t see the next sunrise.
    And second, I had a professor when studying for an advanced history degree who did a unit on the history of education. At one point he gave us the secret of being an academic success–kiss professorial butt–always regurgitate their ideas on tests and in class no matter how bizarre or moronic or insane their ideas and facts may be. He thereupon gave us the real words behind B.S., M.S., and Ph.D.==Bull Sh-t, More Sh-t, and Piling it higher and Deeper.

  • http://www.republicansforsatan.com RFS

    Bennish is the type of teacher I want my kid to have.

  • Dave

    It was right of the student to turn his teacher in. Sounds like he learned something from history: German history in the 1930′s and the Soviet Union. This could be the beginning of a nice long career as a snitch.

  • Stephen A.

    RFS, would you feel the same way if the teacher bashed political liberals every day in class?

  • Ken

    My 11th grade American History teacher’s bible made prominent mention of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. It didn’t bother me, of course, since my family was yellow-dog Democrats (as we say in Texas) in the days when all public officials were Dems. In those days, Democrats came in conservative and liberal flavors. I didn’t know any Republicans except one aunt and uncle. Like all Republicans, they lived in North Dallas (and still do).

    The point is that teachers have always had opinions and managed to work them into the classroom. That becomes a problem when the culture is heterogeneous and technology available to publicize the “heresy”.

    Of course, a good teacher doesn’t preach: s/he elicits opinions and challenges them, pushing the kids to see and question their own presuppositions. A really good teacher’s opinions will never be known by the kids, or at least not till later. Bennish apparently isn’t much of a teacher.

  • http://www.blackphi.co.uk/webitorial.php Phil Blackburn

    I’m a touch ambivalent on this. On the one hand, freedom of speech should also imply freedom to report that speech and, in the context of a school classroom, freedom to criticise that speech if it is manipulative or distorted. On the other hand, when one part of one lesson is recorded it is hard to be sure how balanced a record is being provided. In this particular case the mp3 seems quite comprehensive, but do students now have carte-blanche for selective recording of teachers?

    When I was in the sixth-form at school (I’m not sure what the US translation is – it corresponds to ages 17-18) we attended a subject known as ‘General Studies’. This was a bit of a ragbag subject, but part of its remit was seen as teaching us to think. We had several different teachers, one of whom gave very left-wing presentations. These were (with hindsight) highly exaggerated and always provoked discussions which included, almost subliminally, practice in reasoning, in analysis, in presenting an argument and in understanding someone else’s argument. That teacher was doing his job, but I can imagine some of the more reactionary UK papers having a field day with a recording of part of one of his lessons.

    The teacher in this Denver case doesn’t seem to have generated any discussion at all (at least in the first third – I didn’t have the dedication to get past that, as I found his style so grim). Nevertheless I worry that good teachers may get restricted by this case. Is it really a good thing if kids grow up unable to engage with different viewpoints? How else can cultural divides be bridged?

  • David

    I would have liked to see the reporter(s) include some comments from other students (although the “150″ and “16″ were mentioned in support of the teacher). What were the students perceptions of the teacher outside of this particular incident.

    I have not listened to the audio (and maybe that would affect my opinion), but I appreciated it when my son’s high school teachers raised these issues. It made my son think and it generated some interesting family dinner conversations. How many parents actually talk to their children about “what they learned at school today” or have dinner together any more?

    Most of the teachers I’ve talked to (public and private schools) feel that parents have abdicated their responsibility. I think that is the bigger story.

  • http://none Deadeye Dick

    I think this incident warns us how close we are drifting to fascism in this country. I remember one time when I was taped by student (without my permission) for some critical things I said about the religious right and then someone was playing this tape two months later at a conference 900 miles away from the original venue of the address as a way of discrediting me as an evangelical. I didn’t like it, as I am sure the Denver teacher didn’t like what his student had done. In fact, I have some very hard things to say about Bush and his sheep-like followers myself, and I would love to talk about how conservative Protestants in Germany were snookered by Hitler and his nationalistic rhetoric and phoney piety. (See German Baptist historian Andrea Struebind’s UNFREI FREIKIRCHE for a sobering study of how her fellow Baptists were taken in.) But if I were actually to do so, and posit it as an object lesson for our times, could I not expect to have the FBI and Homeland Security knocking on my door at 3:00 am, not to mention the somewhat more liberal-minded keepers of the site lambasting me for my blue state (zip 01915) arrogance? It gives evangelicals something to ponder, doesn’t it?

  • Rae Leggett

    So basically, you want to express your opinions but not be criticized for them?

    There are no jackbooted thugs busting down his door for daring to disagree with The Man. Thats what real Fascism is.

    Frankly, I think our problem in this country is that we’ve divorced Freedom of Speech from Responsibility for What We Say. Words mean things, and if what you say isn’t worth fighting for, then why say it?

  • Daniel

    Unquestionably, students secretely taping teachers and professors creates a chilling effect, especially when the student uses the tape for his or her own political motivations. It’s not like the tape was given to school officials, but instead to a conservative radio station.

    Should the teacher have said what was said? Who knows, without more context. Maybe not. But that doesn’t mean the kid should secretly tape the teacher and then turn it over to a radio station in an attempt to (a) gain more attention for the kid and (b) play out the kid’s (and the radio station’s) own political motives.

    Would a conservative teacher been given the same treatment? In Colorado, chances are likely that they would have been treated with the same kid-gloves approach and there would have been equal concerns about free speech

  • stuart

    It is clear that McCarthyism is begining to rear it’s ugly head once again. The arrogance and outright cowardice of a young man and his father to clandestinly tape a lecture without so much as an overt challange to the teacher smacks of an Orwellian behavior, the level and intensity of such we have yet to imagine and of which, we will only see more.
    Where is the discussion of the rightness or wrongness of the teachers words, concepts, ideas? A government teacher’s job is to teach the Constitutional imperative of active participation by citizens. Questioning and radical constructs are part of this. Providing an alternative to the dogma which the father obviously used to indoctrinate the son, is an obligation which I follow with my own students both at the senior high school and university level. The day that teachers fear the Hitlerjugend tactic of “telling” on the teacher will fortell what Huey Long said years ago…”When Fascism comes to America it will come disguised as Patriotism”

    Good luck to us all!!!

  • Kizmet

    Just one question: what’s the average grade of this teacher’s students? Are they all passing? If not, why is he not TEACHING what he’s being paid to teach?

  • http://weblog.theviewfromthecore.com/ ELC

    I had a nice comment here. (Honest.) I clicked on “Submit Comment” only to be informed that I had not entered the correct code.

    I know why you want to use a code. I don’t know why you have to use a code that is formatted as to be almost illegible.

    Maybe I’ll try again some time.

  • BWhite

    Putting aside the morality of secretly taping a teacher’s lecture aside for a moment, an immediate question comes to mind: what does Bush’s domestic or foreign policy have to do with geography? Were this a history or poly-sci class. I could see the justification of bringing the State of the Union address into the classroom (though not as a rant), but not in a geography class. Freedom of speech is very important but it can’t be used as an excuse to not perform your assigned duties.
    As to whether or not the student was wrong to secretly record the ‘lecture’, I can’t see anything wrong with it really. It was a public forum in which a public employee was speaking. There should be no expectation of privacy in such circumstances unless a specific district guideline covers it. There seems to be no difference between this and a student going home to inform his parents of what was said in class except that now the teacher cannot claim he never said such things, was misunderstood, or taken out of context.
    For those that see this as the rise of facism in this country, I ask that they pull the plank out of their eye. When an employee of a major corporation ‘whistle-blows’ by taking a recording of executives to the press, is he decried as a harbringer of facism or a chicken for not confronting his boss with the tape? Furthermore, are his political motives brought into question or is he hailed as a hero by all those in the press and on the left? Why is this student a snitch or sneaky for speaking truth to power in his own way? I thought questioning authority was a good thing; or is it only good when an ideologically-approved authority is in the dock?

  • http://theaccidentalanglican.typepad.com Deborah

    I’m not sure where the “secretly recorded” assumption crept in here, but I don’t recall seeing any reference to “secret recording” in any of the news coverage linked in this article. Listen to the actual recording — you can hear the sound of a nearby laptop hard disk spinning up periodically. That indicates to me that the recorder was sitting out on the desk, probably in plain view.

    If you’ve been in a classroom lately, you’ve no doubt seen digital and mini-tape recorders all over the room. Note-taking in the strict “paper-and-pencil” sense is darn-near passe.

    Whether anyone agrees with the recording being played for an audience outside of the school (either before or in lieu of playing it for school officials as part of an official complaint) is another subject. But I think we’re making a dangerous leap in logic (and thus start assigning motives) when we assume that the taping itself was surreptitious.

  • Daniel

    The tape has been described by some media outlets at “covert.” While tape recording may be more common in colleges and universities, it’s a rare high school teacher who expects to be taped.

  • http://theaccidentalanglican.typepad.com Deborah

    DANIEL:

    During Sean’s Fox News interview, he said that he commonly tapes lectures for many of his classes, so even if you are correct that this is “rare” behavior for a high-schooler, it is apparently frequent behavior for this student and therefore should not have caught this particular teacher by surprise.

    If “some media outlets” (can you provide links or references?) are describing the tapes as “covert” (and if you’re making that assumption yourself), that assumption is directly contradicted by the student himself. If there is disagreement as to whether the recordings were “covert,” these “media outlets” should say so. To do otherwise is journalistic ineptitude.

  • m wakefield

    After listening to the teachers lecture, I found many things with which I disagree. I also found that he brought to bear several valid questions which “someone” should be asking of his majesty our President.

    While not a country music fan, I have often wondered ….if free speech is worth it’s purchase price of American blood, then why do we punish people who exercise it? Anyone out there remember the Dixie Chicks?

  • tmatt

    MWakefield:

    The chicks ran into people who disagreed with them and acted on that disagreement in the marketplace.

    That is not the same thing as riots and government actions (such as acting the Dutch to close down newspapers).

    At some point, the left needs to get over its anger at customers whose choices do not match the choices the left wish for them to make.

  • tmatt

    Oh, and, of course, you could say that the rising number of people choosing traditional religious schools and/or homeschooling represents another such choice in the marketplace. Of course, it is painful to fund — with your tax dollars — schools that rarely are neutral on issues of morality and faith. But there you have it.

  • Daniel

    Whether he tapes them and whether he has permission to tape them are two different things. If a teacher or professor doesn’t know they are being taped, it doesn’t really matter if the student does it all the time.

    I’m actually surprised hwo few of the stories actually answer that basic question. Because the teaecher hasn’t been able to defend himself and much of the coverage focuses on what the school and kid say, we don’t really know whether he consented to the taping or had had given permission.

  • Daniel

    Of course, it is painful to fund — with your tax dollars — schools that rarely are neutral on issues of morality and faith.

    Its a choice all people, liiberals and conservatives, are placed in when tax dollars don’t reflect their values. The same could be said for liberals who disagree with the War in Iraq, our government’s enforcement of environmental laws, and our government’s use of police powers.

  • Stephen A.

    I love how the words “McCarthyism” and “Fascism” are bandied about by the Left. How amusing, and utterly ludicrous. Is it “Fascism” when hysterical students and teachers run screaming from a classroom when a student brings a Bible to class, or mentions God in a book report? Nope, that’s just “Separation of Church and State.” It’s also hypocricy.

    As for the media coverage, David said above, “I would have liked to see the reporter(s) include some comments from other students (although the “150” and “16” were mentioned in support of the teacher). What were the students perceptions of the teacher outside of this particular incident”

    I think the reporters saved themselves a lot of work for nothing, since we already have the numbers. And the fact that kids can’t distinguish between responsible and irresponsible speech is not newsworthy anyway, except perhaps to the Left.

    If kids ignored (or didn’t even recognize) the teacher’s preaching, and said they “perceived” him as a good teacher, what does that add to the story? And why as adult news-consumers do we even CARE? Might as well ask them to list their favorite subjects or cafeteria foods while we’re at it.

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  • http://theaccidentalanglican.typepad.com Deborah

    “Whether he tapes them and whether he has permission to tape them are two different things. If a teacher or professor doesn’t know they are being taped, it doesn’t really matter if the student does it all the time.”

    Daniel, Daniel, Daniel … you’re being willfully ignorant of the crux of the argument. No news report I have seen has asserted that the taping was done secretly. No one has reported Bennish or his attorney claiming that it was done without Bennish’s knowledge or permission. And at least one media source has asked the student point-blank (it was the FIRST question they asked) whether he did it secretly, and the student says he did not.

    If you have some credible sources who say otherwise, then post them and let us all consider them. But stop making a dubious, unfounded assumption and then using that assumption to impute sinister motives. Do not assume – POINT TO THE TEXT.

  • http://theaccidentalanglican.typepad.com Deborah

    Daniel – I did fail to address one aspect of your post adequately, and I apologize. While the teacher may be under a gag order, the other students (to my knowledge — correct me if I am wrong) are not. And nothing should prevent a diligent journalist from getting an “unnamed source” quote from one of the students saying that the recorder was hidden under the desk or something to that effect. If your **still-unnamed** “media sources” are describing the tape as “covert,” they should be pointing to a source for the allegation, even if they don’t give a name for the record.

    I still maintain that many of the insinuations made in other commets are based on (as lawyers are fond of saying) facts not in evidence, and then the comments use that assumption to impute a dark motive to the student. That, in a nutshell, is MY beef.

  • http://weblog.theviewfromthecore.com/ ELC

    I generally agree with Bwhite’s comment. Specifically, I don’t see how any public employee working in his public employment on public property has any legal, or even ethical, expectation of privacy. IOW, his consent to being taped is, I think, irrelevant. If a teacher wants to rant without any digital evidence of his ranting, let him do it in a private school, where he might have some expecation of privacy, or on his own time.

    Would students taping instructors have a “chilling effect”? Maybe. Maybe not. If the “chilling effect” would be that the instructors would more faithfully teach what they’re being paid to teach, and teach it well, then I say, “Faster, please”.

  • http://none Deadeye Dick

    I find all this chatter about a teacher going to a private school and expressing his unpopular opinion to be ludicrous. Isn’t that what all these Christian schools are about–to keep students from having to hear criticsm of their demigod Republican leaders. Here in the public airways the voices of people like me who are genuinely concerned about where the country is going and who actually served in the military (unlike almost all our current leaders who had “other agendas”) and thus have legitimate questions about our foolhardy adventure in Iraq can be heard. Of course, we can just as quickly be put down and casually dispensed with as “liberals” and “leftists,” whereas in these protective environments students would never have to hear a word of criticism of God’s Republican anointed. Naturally, these people were savage in their criticism of Bill Clinton, but then he wasn’t in their hip pocket. I am one evangelical who is not going to yield to the spiritual Zeitgeist and I intend to keep sounding off until I am silenced, which my wife keeps telling me is going to be soon.


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