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The firing of Brooke Harris: a teachable moment about free speech

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Caruso’s dismissal generated a few columns and blog posts from outraged Republicans. But from Democrats? Not a peep. Nor did I hear much protest – from any side of the aisle – when a federal jury ruled against Caruso in 2007.

In instructing the jury, the presiding judge emphasized that Caruso had freedom of speech in her capacity as a citizen, but not as a teacher. So she was free to support President Bush on her own time – and on her own dime – but not while she was in school.

Here the judge invoked the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos, which said that public employees have no First Amendment rights when they are speaking as part of their “official duties.” The state hires employees to deliver a certain message, the court said, so it can also penalize those who deviate from it.

Since then, federal courts have used Garcetti to uphold the removal of an Indiana teacher who told her students she opposed the war in Iraq, and of an Ohio teacher who asked her class to report on examples from the American Library Association’s 100 “most frequently challenged” books. “The right to free speech...does not extend to the in-class curricular speech of teachers in primary and secondary schools,” the Ohio ruling flatly declared.

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