At certain times in our nation’s history and dialogue, we seem to have the innate ability to provide exactly the counterpoint that is needed for the situation. For example, after the war-dominated and scandal-ridden Nixon administration, our nation needed a Gerald Ford. Ford was a healer, a voice of calm and reason right when we needed one.
Now, we’ve done it again. In the midst of the whole debate over whether Union High teacher Viki Knox should be fired over the anti-LGBT invectives that she posted to Facebook, another case has emerged, on the opposite side of the political spectrum. In the birthplace of revolution that is Boston, Massachusetts, Suffolk University Law School professor and Constitutional Law attorney Michael Avery has “stirred the pot,” so to speak.
Responding to a call for donations by a staff member for care packages being sent to U.S. servicemembers overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, professor Avery sent an e-mail out to several of his colleagues, decrying the effort as “shameful.” (The following are selected excerpts from that e-mail, with a link to the entire text at the end:)
“I think it is shameful that it is perceived as legitimate to solicit in an academic institution for support for men and women who have gone overseas to kill other human beings. I understand that there is a residual sympathy for service members, perhaps engendered by support for troops in World War II, or perhaps from when there was a draft and people with few resources to resist were involuntarily sent to battle. That sympathy is not particularly rational in today’s world, however.”
“Perhaps some of my colleagues will consider this to be an inappropriate political statement. But of course the solicitation email was a political statement, although cast as support for student activities. The politics of that solicitation are that war is legitimate, perhaps inevitable, and that patriotic Americans should get behind our troops.”(1)
Since this story broke a week ago, a number of people have opined on everything from professor Avery’s statements themselves, to his lack of military experience, to whether he, like Viki Knox should be allowed to keep his job. The overwhelming majority of commentary and opinions against professor Avery are coming from those on the political “right,” including current and former servicemembers, spouses, conservative media personalities and politicians. And, as was the case with Viki Knox, pages have already sprung up on Facebook both in support of and in opposition to professor Avery. (It is important to note that the opposition page shows far more activity and “likes” than the support page at this time.)
Now, before we proceed any further with this, let’s break some of this down into a point / counterpoint view of the facts. Here’s what we know:
- Viki Knox is a Special Education teacher at Union High School, in Union Twp., New Jersey.
- Michael Avery is a Law Professor at Suffolk University Law School, in Boston, Massachusetts.
- Union High School is a secondary educational institution, within the public school system. As such, it is maintained by the government and funded by tax dollars. Its employees are considered government employees, salaried by the school district.
- Suffolk University Law School is a private, post-secondary educational institution. Its employees are considered private citizens, salaried by the college.
- Viki Knox issued what she knew to be public statements in opposition to LGBT rights and support of the LGBT community, a cause near and dear to the liberal left.
- Michael Avery issued what he knew to be public statements in opposition to support of the military, a cause near and dear to the conservative right.
- BOTH Viki Knox and Michael Avery issued their statements under the umbrellas of their respective positions as educators. Michael Avery did use, and Viki Knox may have used school-owned computer equipment to issue their statements.
- People aligned with the liberal left are calling for Viki Knox’s dismissal.
- People aligned with the conservative right are calling for Michael Avery’s dismissal.
Both the liberals in support of Michael Avery and the conservatives in support of Viki Knox have built their respective positions on the foundation of “Freedom of Speech,” citing the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The idea there is that, as American citizens, they have the right to give voice to their opinions, without fear of reprisal. Now, in a perfect world this would be a fine idea. The only problem is that we do not live in a perfect world. Therefore, our government has placed certain justifiable, legal limitations on free speech.
In the 2006 U.S. Supreme Court case “Garcetti v. Ceballos,” (547 U.S. 410) SCOTUS ruled that the First Amendment does not prevent employees from being disciplined for expressions they make pursuant to their professional duties. As a government employee, Viki Knox is most definitely subject to this ruling by SCOTUS. Michael Avery, on the other hand is not, since his statement was made as a private citizen.(2) (3)
Another aspect of both cases that must be addressed is whether each person’s statements conflicts with established policies against discrimination. In the instance of Viki Knox, her statements were made in direct contrast to established school and district policies regarding discrimination and harassment of people, with respect to race, creed, age, gender, religion, sexual preference or otherwise. In Michael Avery’s case, his statements were directed towards the government, or specifically an entity thereof. In essence, the individual situations coalesce into this; an employee of the government spoke against private citizens, and a private citizen spoke against the government. As we all know, it’s perfectly fine for the citizenry to criticize the government, but not the other way around, for the simple reason that government should operate at the behest of the governed.
One thing is for sure: I personally disgree with both Viki Knox and Michael Avery. When each is viewed through the prism of the other though, the similarities and differences in each situation become clearer.