Teachers contend with repercussions of unpopular speech
By The Associated Press,
Unpopular words recently tripped up two teachers one a tenured history professor in New Mexico and the other a high school substitute in Pennsylvania.
Richard Berthold, a tenured University of New Mexico history professor, told a class of freshmen that "Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote." The statement has angered several state legislators and one has demanded that he be fired.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh, Pa., substitute teacher John Gardner got his job back Sept. 21, a day after being suspended for writing "Osama bin Laden did us a favor!" in the margin of a newspaper that another teacher saw and reported to Pittsburgh Public Schools officials.
In the New Mexico controversy, Berthold says any attempt to fire him could violate his freedom of speech and would be "a slippery slope to get on when it comes to academic freedom and expression."
William Gordon, university president, also lashed out at Berthold.
"I consider the remark made by Professor Berthold to be irresponsible and deeply offensive," Gordon said in a statement released Sept. 21.
"While we all know that the First Amendment protects a broad range of speech, the fact that Professor Berthold's speech is protected does not make his comments any less repugnant," Gordon added.
Gordon said Berthold has "communicated to me his deep regret for what he said and his shame for having said it." He said Berthold has apologized to his students and would issue a public apology to the entire community.
In an interview with The Santa Fe New Mexican, Berthold, who has taught at the university for 29 years, said he was sorry he made the statement, but defended his right of free speech in the classroom.
"I was a jerk," he said Sept. 19. "But the First Amendment protects my right to be a jerk."
Rep. William Fuller, R-Albuquerque, a retired Army colonel whose son, also a colonel, works at the Pentagon, called for the university to fire Berthold.
"He didn't make these statements to his family in his living room," Fuller said on the House floor. "He didn't say it to friends at a table in a cafe or at a backyard barbecue. I wouldn't have a problem with that.
"But he said it as a person paid by the state at an institution funded by the state. And I have a problem with that."
Fuller's son was at another building when a hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, where at least 189 people are believed to have been killed. The son works in an office in the same wing that was hit.
"His office was burned to smithereens," Fuller said. "If something had happened to my son, I would be having a much closer discussion with this professor."
Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, Gardner was reinstated Sept. 21 shortly after meeting with Pittsburgh Public Schools to explain the remark "Osama bin Laden did us a favor!" written in the margin of a newspaper.
Gardner, 51, a disabled Army veteran who has four children in city schools, had been suspended without a hearing on Sept. 20. Gardner said he jotted down the phrase after somebody whose name he can't remember said something like this on MSNBC: "You could say Osama bin Laden did us a favor. He vulcanized us. He awakened us and strengthened our resolve."
Gardner said he noted the remark for a book he's been writing for eight years, to be titled "On the Wings of Adversity," which deals with finding the silver linings in the dark clouds of life.
School officials confirmed on the afternoon of Sept. 21 that Gardner's suspension had been lifted and that he would be paid for Sept. 20, when police escorted him off school grounds.
Pittsburgh schools spokeswoman Pat Crawford on the morning of Sept. 21 had defended the decision to suspend Gardner.
"You have to look at this in the light of everything else that's gone on in the world recently," Crawford had said.
"Just the name 'bin Laden' evokes fear on the part of a lot of people, and especially in a school setting, it was not good judgment for a substitute to be working on this project, which is a personal project, on school time," Crawford said. "He should have been devoting his full time to being a substitute teacher."
Substitute teachers must have school board approval to work in the district. They can be suspended or fired without a due-process hearing, but full-time teachers cannot under their contract, Crawford said.
The American Civil Liberties Union had planned to intervene on Gardner's behalf if he had not been reinstated.
Vic Walczak, executive director of the Pittsburgh ACLU, said he was "furious" over the school district's actions.
Walczak said Gardner should never have been suspended, even if the remark reflected an anti-American sentiment.
"The school district cannot punish somebody for expressing a dissenting opinion as obnoxious as it may be or if their expression doesn't meet some imagined minimal level of patriotism," Walczak said.
Gardner denied he did anything wrong including working on his book on school time. He said he brought the newspaper from home and was transcribing notes he wrote on it into a notebook he is using for his book.
Gardner said he arrived at school at 8:10 a.m. 45 minutes before the home room bell and was copying the notes while a group of teachers, including the one who saw the bin Laden remark, held a short meeting. No students were present, he said.
Gardner said his opinion on bin Laden isn't much different from that espoused by President George W. Bush said Sept. 20 in an address to the nation.
"We are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom," Bush said.
"What if what Osama bin Laden did backfired on him? It's galvanized the country and we're getting rid of terrorism before he kills any more," Gardner said.
"Look at Israel and Palestine. They do not just have a state of cease fire, but an actual cease fire because of this."
Gardner said even his suspension fits the theme of his book.
"It was an adversity, but something good came out of it," he said.
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