Teachers and Your Rights: About Your Private Life…

A teacher’s life outside the school may come under scrutiny. Aspects such as whether or not a teacher is associated with any radical political organizations or groups outside school can be grounds for denial of employment or dismissal from services. New York’s Feinberg Law was adopted in 1949 in view of the alleged communist infiltration of public schools during that time. A list of organizations that were in favor of overthrowing the U.S. government by violent means was created.

Any person who turned out to be a member of any organization on the list was deemed unfit to take any office in the school system. The law helped the court reach several verdicts in later years, even though the Feinberg Law was eventually ruled to be largely unconstitutional. A membership with any organization did not mean that the individual partook in the goals of the organization. At the same time, however, the court maintained that the school boards still had every right to screen employees and dismiss them if their personal views supported the overthrow of the U.S. government.

On the whole, U.S. laws seem to be quite ambiguous about whether or not a teacher’s private life can be a basis for his or her dismissal from school. The general trend has been against the teacher’s interests, and teachers’ private lives have met with disapproval from the courts. Court verdicts have, at times, upheld teachers’ rights, however. An Ohio court ruled that a teacher could not be dismissed for using offensive language in a confidential letter to one of the students. Likewise, in another case, the court observed that it was unethical to dismiss a teacher from on charges of indulging in a homosexual relationship with a fellow teacher. The explanation provided was that unless a teacher’s actions hindered his or her ability to teach, any disciplinary action could not be taken against the teacher.

The bottom line is that unless a teacher’s private life interferes with his or her professional conduct as a teacher, it should not be of concern to school authorities, the court, or society in general. But decision regarding these issues is very subjective, and clear-cut definitions of what is “interfering” and what is not “interfering” do not really exist. The only way to reach a consensus is by way of an agreement between the teacher’s organization and the school district about what is acceptable and what is not.

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