Viki Knox: Where Garden State Equality Gets It Right

1407

commentary.

A bit more than 32 years ago, when I was a junior in high school, my classmates and I went out to dinner toward the end of the year with one of our teachers.  At the dinner, the teacher spewed anti-Semitic hate that left us in shock. My classmates and I, joined by our parents, led a campaign asking the school to take action, and within a couple of weeks, the school let the teacher go.

Our teacher had the First Amendment right to free speech. So, too, did the school have the right to act. The school believed the teacher’s hateful comments compromised the ability of students to feel safe and comfortable in the teacher’s presence.   

Fast forward to 2011, when Viki Knox, a teacher at Union High School, posted this on Facebook: “Homosexuality is a perverted spirit that has existed from the beginning of creation.  I know sin and it breeds like cancer!  I/we do not have to accept anything, anyone, any behavior or any choices!  I do not have to tolerate anything others wish to do.”   

Facebook, of course, did not exist when my teacher had dinner with us students in 1979. But the situations are parallel, except that Ms. Knox’s invective reached more students, and she stated she teaches it. As Ms. Knox wrote amidst the anti-LGBT invective she posted on Facebook: “THAT’S WHAT I TEACH AND PREACH.”  The all caps are hers. 

In calling for the strongest possible personnel action to be taken against Ms. Knox, the Star-Ledger wrote in an editorial:  “She fired up a computer, identified herself as a Union High School teacher and posted bigoted remarks on Facebook – more than once.  She might as well have hopped on a soapbox across the street from the school and screamed her anti-gay rant into a bullhorn. She created a fearful, hostile environment for students. That’s unacceptable.” 

Or as Alfred Doblin of The Record wrote in his column, “What gay student would feel comfortable attending a school that employs a teacher who refers to homosexuality as a ‘perverted spirit’?” 

None. In fact, would anyone defend Ms. Knox if, on Facebook, she advocated injury to her students?  In a psychological sense, didn’t Ms. Knox do just that? As someone both verbally tormented and physically beaten as a youth because I was gay, I can tell you I got over the physical injuries. The pain from the verbal denigration lingered for decades beyond.   

We cannot wait to act until a student spirals into depression and takes drastic measures upon herself. Preventing that end is a legitimate public interest. Unlike a number of the other legendary street battles that helped to put Garden State Equality on the map, here children are at stake. When time ticks away, it matters.

If the fierce reaction to Ms. Knox and the resulting news coverage influences even one other educator in New Jersey or beyond from attacking students’ self-worth, collectively we not only helped to create a teachable moment, but perhaps a life-saving moment as well.   

To be sure, this is a teachable moment in another way. No one should assume Garden State Equality hasn’t aimed for conciliation behind the scenes.  We will continue to do so.   It wouldn’t make sense to fault Garden State Equality for being too public, on the one hand – we try to be a model for visible and vocal public advocacy – then fault us for sometimes taking a quieter approach, where warranted, on the other hand.

Indeed, Garden State Equality’s multipronged approach to advocacy is this: Notwithstanding our direct action on the streets, over the years we have initiated countless meetings with leaders and citizens whose views on LGBT equality differ sharply from our own. We don’t believe the two approaches are mutually exclusive.   

If you were inside the Union Township Board of Education meeting last week – versus watching both sides’ protests outside the building – you saw how we, working with Ms. Knox’s supporters, engaged in a vigorous but respectful dialogue.   A number of us got together beforehand to make sure that would be the case. There was no missed opportunity. Garden State Equality will work hard to make sure there are no future missed opportunities either. 

We also understand Ms. Knox’s First Amendment right to free speech. As Garden State Equality has made clear from the moment this scandal broke, we passionately believe she has the right to speak any hatred she wants as a private citizen. The First Amendment protects that right. But we do not believe she has the right to wear the mantle of her job as a teacher and communicate anti-LGBT prejudice in that capacity. 

Throughout its history, the U.S. Supreme Court has been predisposed to upholding the right of free speech, thankfully. But it has established careful considerations. In its 1968 decision Pickering v. Board of Education, the Court upheld the free speech rights of a teacher who wrote a letter to the newspaper that led to his firing. But the Court considered whether the statements in the teacher’s letter “interfered with his performance of his teaching duties or the school’s general operation.”   

In the 2006 decision Garcetti v. Ceballos, the Court ruled: “We hold that when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.”

A very few have argued that Facebook does not allow people to differentiate how they communicate – that is, whether as private citizens or wearing the mantle of their jobs.  We strongly disagree.     

In her Facebook masthead, Viki Knox labeled herself a teacher at Union High School when she had the option not to. In her vicious anti-LGBT posts, she made repeated comments from her perspective as a teacher at Union High School and actually encouraged detractors to report her to the school district if they didn’t like her anti-LGBT message. And she knowingly refused to set her Facebook page to the privacy settings that millions of other people use to limit their Facebook communications to their circle of friends. “I didn’t make it private because I didn’t feel the need to,” she posted amidst her statements.

We didn’t wrap Ms. Knox in the mantle of her job on Facebook. She did.

Regarding the Union High School display of photographs of famous LGBT people to mark October as  LGBT history month – the display that ignited her diatribe – Ms. Knox vowed that “battle lines would be drawn soon.” Her advocacy of intra-school conflict against a minority protected by the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination runs counter to her responsibilities as a teacher. 

Our good friends at the ACLU of New Jersey, whose pro-LGBT credentials we appreciate beyond measure, have strongly defended Viki Knox’s right to free speech. But the ACLU also issued a statement that included this: “Because her postings raise questions about her conduct within school, the school district can and should investigate whether she is performing her job in accordance with school policies and the state’s Law Against Discrimination.” 

Indeed, it may turn out that the school district has reason beyond Facebook to take action against Ms. Knox. Two students spoke to the media this week shortly before or during a Union Township School Board meeting. One student said a classmate heard Ms. Knox speak her anti-LGBT invective in the classroom. And from a first-hand perspective, another student said she herself wore a rainbow bracelet in Ms. Knox’s class – and Ms. Knox, the student said, looked at it and had her leave class. Again, to be clear, that student spoke from her first-hand perspective. 

It is not hard to imagine that an investigation might reveal other in-school incidents. When someone posted that Ms. Knox’s anti-LGBT statements violated the school district’s mission – a statement on the district’s website promising a healthy and safe educational environment for all students – Ms. Knox explained that she substituted her own judgment for the mission statement, which she mocked. She posted that people should notify the district superintendent if they didn’t like it.

According to the superintendent, thousands of people have done just that. Now it’s up to the school district to exercise its rights. Our children, including our most vulnerable children, are watching.

This article reprinted here. It first appeared on BlueJersey.com

For more on this story see the Out In Jersey article on the protest.

 

commentary.

A bit more than 32 years ago, when I was a junior in high school, my classmates and I went out to dinner toward the end of the year with one of our teachers.  At the dinner, the teacher spewed anti-Semitic hate that left us in shock. My classmates and I, joined by our parents, led a campaign asking the school to take action, and within a couple of weeks, the school let the teacher go.