Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Despite Hurtful Words, Teacher Didn't Deserve Termination

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Despite Hurtful Words, Teacher Didn't Deserve Termination

Article excerpt

JENNIFER O'Brien is not America's poster child for free speech. Maybe it's time to anoint her.

O'Brien is the Paterson teacher who was fired almost two years ago for writing on her Facebook page that she does not feel like an educator in the classroom but the equivalent of a "warden for future criminals."

Was she insulting? Of course. Racist? Maybe.

When O'Brien wrote her Facebook posting, she was teaching 23 first graders at Paterson's School 21. Every student was either black or Hispanic and from one of the poorest neighborhoods in one of America's poorest cities. O'Brien is white and lives in Elmwood Park.

All this may be interesting to sociologists. But should skin color and the age of students play any role in whether a teacher has constitutional protection to express her views in public?

New Jersey seems to think so.

After O'Brien was fired from her $60,513-a-year job, she appealed to a state administrative law judge. The judge ruled against her, noting that O'Brien seemed "befuddled by the commotion she had created" and has "demonstrated a complete lack of sensitivity to the world in which her students live."

Such an observation is befuddling for any judge to make, especially in a case involving free speech. Didn't America's forefathers craft the guarantee of free speech as the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to protect speech or writing that caused a "commotion" or lacked sensitivity?

O'Brien appealed the judge's ruling to the state education commissioner. Once again, O'Brien's appeal was rejected. Commissioner Christopher Cerf wrote in his opinion that O'Brien's Facebook commentary demonstrated a "disturbing lack of self- control, insensitivity and unprofessionalism" and "without question, constituted unbecoming conduct."

Last year, O'Brien appealed a third time - to a state appellate court. Once again she was rejected.

In a ruling released earlier this month, a two-judge panel said O'Brien's comments were not protected by the First Amendment. O'Brien's "right to express those comments," the judges wrote, "was outweighed by the district's interest in the efficient operation of its schools."

Efficient operation? Outweighed?

Let's consider what happened when word spread in the spring of 2011 about O'Brien's views of her first grade class.

TV news crews showed up outside School 21.

Parents complained to the principal and to other school officials. A few parents even demanded that their children be removed from O'Brien's educational clutches.

In one of her appeals, O'Brien later testified that on the day she posted her views on her personal Facebook page she had to deal with six or seven students who continually "disrupted" her class and that one student actually struck her. In other words, she was frustrated.

Once upon a time, workers expressed their frustrations about the work environment or even about their bosses and co-workers by chatting at the water cooler with colleagues or over a beer after work. …

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