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Twitter, professional identity, and the 1st Amendment

On Sunday (Easter) morning, I noticed a bunch of public school educators who I follow posting religious material on Twitter. The posts ranged from a simple “He is risen!” to longer passages from the Bible to links to live streams of religious ceremonies. In response, here’s what I posted:

That was a not-so-subtle nod to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. I am not stating definitively that public school educators are in violation of that clause by tweeting scripture, but I do believe there is an argument to be made. Here’s the logic of that argument:

  • Many, many public school educators have made claims to the effect of “Twitter is the best source of professional development I’ve ever known…” Or, “Twitter is an amazing part of my personal/professional learning network (PLN)…” These same folks participate in education-related Twitter chats, use Twitter to announce blog posts related to education, etc. In other words, their Twitter account is very much a part of their professional identity.
  • IF Twitter is part of one’s professional identity, then one must consider all legal and ethical obligations that come with being a professional public school educator.
  • While public educators have 1st Amendment rights around freedom of expression and even around freely exercising their religion, those rights are not unbounded. The Establishment Clause is one such constraint.
  • Citing scripture on Twitter, therefore, is potentially a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Without going in to a full lesson on Establishment Clause jurisprudence, state actors (including, of course, public school educators) cannot “endorse” or “promote” a religion. That’s not quite the full legal standard, and, actually, the legal standard is not quite clear. Different courts and different judges are using an array of legal standards/tests. But, suffice it to say that there are clear ways that state actors can express themselves, and clear ways they cannot; everything in between is a little fuzzy. So, for example, public school educators are well within their rights to wear a necklace with a pendant of a cross or a Star of David. They are not, however, within their rights to post scripture on the walls of their classroom(s). Teaching about religion is fine (I’d even venture to say it’s important, particularly around the study of world history), but teaching a religion is not. Those are the “easy” or “clear” cases.

So, one could claim that citing scripture on Twitter is akin to wearing a necklace with a religious symbol. I believe it is more than that, putting it into that fuzzy area.  Even with a protected account, posting to Twitter is a very public act; it is a broadcast that can be seen by virtually anyone (students, colleagues, community members, etc.). Nobody is forced to see what you tweet, but by posting to Twitter we are SHOUTING OUT LOUD!

Dr. Justin Bathon wrote about this issue with respect to Indiana University head basketball coach Tom Crean, whose Twitter postings have change considerably from his ealier usage. There was a period of time when Coach Crean was posting scripture throughout the day. Now, he’s much more basketball-focused. I’d wager that someone in the IU counsel’s office gave him a little lesson on the Establishment Clause. And, remember, Coach Crean came to IU from Marquette University, a Jesuit institution with a very different culture and set of expectations. There’s still the occasional tricky tweet like this one:

That’s “mild” compared to others, but does Coach Crean tweet about how great it is to see Jewish students going to a synagogue or Muslim students entering a mosque? As a state actor, Coach Crean is legally obligated to not promote a particular religion. And, his Twitter account is unquestionably tied to his role as the head coach of a prominent basketball team of a state university.

None of this is clear, and, again, I’m not stating definitively that public school educators cannot use their Twitter account to cite scripture or link to live streams of religious ceremonies. However, there are also moral obligations (especially around inclusiveness) we have as public educators.

Also, let me be clear that I am not suggesting that if you want to post religious material on Twitter you should create a separate “private” Twitter account. I’ve long argued that Twitter (and all social media) causes us to re-consider the private-public distinction and that our online selves are part of our personal AND professional identity. What that means, though, is that we, therefore, have decisions to make about how we express ourselves in these spaces. I don’t criticize my students, colleagues, bosses, etc. online; at least not by name. That’s an ethical bound for me. I don’t post hate speech; that’s a legal bound. As state actors, there are limits to how we might express ourselves in public. If our Twitter accounts are part of our professional identities, then we should consider the limits of how we express ourselves in that space.

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41 Responses to “Twitter, professional identity, and the 1st Amendment”

  1. Tim Owens says:

    Thanks for the post, it’s great fodder for discussion, though I do disagree with some of the statements you’ve made here.

    “They are not, however, within their rights to post scripture on the walls of their classroom(s).”

    I know you don’t say this to make a direct comparison but I think some clarity is in order. Twitter is not the walls of a classroom. It’s not my workplace. It’s a third party online website in which I alone am responsible for the content of the message and I hope (not a lawyer here) that some precedence can be shown that the content cannot and should not be controlled by a workplace.

    “Nobody is forced to see what you tweet, but by posting to Twitter we are SHOUTING OUT LOUD!”

    This sentiment seems to ignore the fact that people have to follow you to be exposed to what you’re writing. Not only were you not forced, but you intentionally chose to follow what I write. Now maybe you did it in the context of thinking “this person is an educator and I didn’t sign up to read the religious stuff” but that’s your own interpretation. If you meet me in a workplace environment you have a right to restrict what you expect me to say and do, but certainly that doesn’t extend to personal social networks be they private or public.

    What it comes down to is whether educators are bound by the Establishment Clause for actions that are taken outside of their workplace in arenas that contain both personal and professional contexts. I don’t think the fact that folks seek professional development from their peers in third party social networks automatically transforms the context of what that space is (legal and ethical reasons aside). But I’m not a lawyer either, so I’m glad to see this discussion come up and look forward to hearing what you and others have to say.

  2. Paul Salomon says:

    Legally, perhaps, this is a concern for public educators, and the policy writers whose job it is to stamp out unsavory practices in teachers’ personal lives, as they may overflow into work… blah blah blah.

    Personally, I don’t want to teach in an environment where my professional persona is expected to be distinct from my everyday self. (This is sometimes called “the divided life.”) I want the freedom to discuss my life as it pertains to my work, because it DOES pertain to my work. I am a mathematician – both at home, and in the classroom.

    Furthermore, this is the lens through which I view the world. I am quite disinterested in the flow of content and technique from me to my students, and I am much more interested in inspiring mathematical sensibilities in them, and shaping their lives. (Perhaps this is where nationally-governed public school and I will never see eye-to-eye, but it speaks to the alue of an education.)

    Finally, if the constitutional case must be made, this hardly seems like a government established religion. You might point to precedence and allow them to trickle down into further and further reaches of what we could consider “government-established.”

    There is a major difference between the metting of beliefs and ideas, and the attempted conversion or illegitimacy of one’s beliefs. I’m not convinced that the US believes in the free flow of ideas, as far as school is concerned…

  3. A few thoughts:

    1. The First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion. If I write about the Nativity on my blog (which I have) or tweet Scripture or write about Easter baskets, it should be protected. As long as it is outside of school hours and I am not being paid by the school, it is perfectly acceptable for me to share my thoughts.

    2. Twitter is, for me, a way of expressing and connecting. Yes, I learn and grow professionally. Then again, I learn from the Bible, from e.e. cummings, from a pint with Javi the Hippie, from the lyrics of Iron and Wine, from indie movies, from conversations with neighbors and from edubloggers who are openly atheist (like Jabiz).

    3. Does this help me develop professionally? Yep, because ultimately teaching comes out of my identity. Is this the same as formal training? Not at all. I wouldn’t give credit for life experiences when entering a university. Similarly, I wouldn’t accept credit or clock hours for my blog, tweets, Tumblr posts or Instagram pictures for the mere fact that I don’t want the oversight and regulation of the government system.

  4. Beth Still says:

    You did give us something to talk about for the day!

    For nearly four years Twitter has been my top professional networking tool. I am on it during my contract time when I am in my office and from time to time if I need it in the classroom when I am teaching. I am very lucky to work in a school where we are encouraged and supported to reach out and learn from others. While I do not claim the time I spend on Twitter toward professional development, I do claim different things I find out about on Twitter such as webinars.

    I tweet personal things from time to time, but I am very aware that what I share is broadcast to the world. I think that is where the potential issue with broadcasting religious views might be an issue. After reading this post it did make me stop to think about when and how we are using Twitter. I stay away from posting anything that has to do with religion and politics because that isn’t how I want to use my account, but I know others take a different approach.

    I’m looking forward to seeing other replies to this post.

  5. The question of whether or not it is appropriate for employees to follow their own interests outside of their job is something that has been bothering me for a while. If we forget the religious context, there are still plenty of other examples such as Petrino’s mess at the U of Arkansas and Guillen’s pro Castro statements.

    What it comes down to (in my opinion) is who “owns” me when I am not at work. (Of course I prefer not to be “owned” at work either.) If I am being payed to do a job, when does that job end? Do I want to work in a “profession” where there are lots of responsibilities, both inside and outside the classroom, but a shrinking number of rights? Can public education stand having “slaves” for teachers?

    Just some thoughts I have been having lately that kind of mesh with your post.

  6. There are a whole lot of things to respond to in your post, but I’m just going to pick out the one piece that I think overreaches your core argument and that’s the last part. While you might want to argue that social media forces us to reconsider the private/public split, there are many people out there who simply don’t believe that this is the case and I count myself among them. Additionally apart from Facebook (which very intentionally obscures privacy settings) most social media services don’t really support this argument either.

    In fact one of the things about life online is that it does make it possible to have pseudonymous or anonymous interactions, or to create separate channels for different types of communication or expressing different identities. By creating a private Twitter account, you’re specifically making it non-public. Unless someone hacks it, only those people you’ve approved can see those tweets, and this is exactly the reason why several folks I know do have two accounts. Of course someone could hack Twitter, but someone can also illegally record you in your home. In both instances, they’re violating your privacy.

    The same thing is basically true of posting a locked post to a limited circle on Google+. Yes, someone can technically copy and paste to a public post and attribute it to you, but that’s fundamentally not the same as making a public post, and while not as illegal as hacking Twitter it is still a violation of your expressed intent. As for pseudonymity, while you can connect through real ID to other players in World of Warcraft or tell a Second Life acquaintance your real name, but unless you choose to share that information you’re only knowable as your toon name. All of these functions allow people to separate their professional and personal identities if they so choose, and I think that’s extremely important.

    To sum up (and bring this back around to education), online activity is not de facto public. Only public online activity is. If we want to be able to attract the best and the brightest to education I think it’s crucial that we bear that in mind. Teachers need to be able to have adult lives both on and off line. While there are many policies currently coming up in schools and districts that push the other direction, I think we do so at our own peril.

  7. Jon Becker says:

    @timmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmyboy you wrote: “Twitter is not the walls of a classroom.” I agree, and said so in the post. It’s something more than wearing a necklace with a religious symbol on it, though. Also, you wrote: ” If you meet me in a workplace environment you have a right to restrict what you expect me to say and do, but certainly that doesn’t extend to personal social networks be they private or public.” And, that’s largely the issue I’m raising. If Twitter is a space where we do PROFESSIONAL networking, is it part of our workplace environment? Is it extending our workplaces beyond our offices, classrooms, etc.?

    @johntspencer “As long as it is outside of school hours and I am not being paid by the school, it is perfectly acceptable for me to share my thoughts.” Even outside of school hours, there are limits to how we can express ourselves. Our employers have the right to discipline us for seemingly private behaviors. For example, there was a NYC teacher who became a member of NAMBLA (look that up if you dare). He was fired for that association; the 1st Amendment didn’t protect him there. And, I think that moves us into @wmchamberlain’s concerns. When you sign up to be a public school teacher, you sign up to be a political actor and subject yourself to certain constraints. It’s the nature of the beast. One issue I’m raising, or one question I’m asking, is if it’s possible that not using Twitter to endorse religion is one of those constraints.

    Ultimately, I side with @BethStill in that I don’t think you can have it both ways: if you think of Twitter as a significant part of your professional identity, then certain regulation is in order.

    And, I’m still trying to wrap my head around @Moses’ statement: “…online activity is not de facto public. Only public online activity is.”

  8. I tend to agree with you, but I also take Moses’ point that censoring ourselves is problematic. I make my Twitter feed and my blog completely public, and while I may be able to argue that it’s my first amendment right to say whatever I want in those spaces, I don’t. They have become professional spaces for me. Almost all of what I say in those spaces relate to my work, because I want to promote my work and by extension, my school. I use face-to-face conversations to talk about religion and politics, two issues I don’t touch in the online spaces I work in.

    I don’t trust pseudonymous spaces enough to use them to post about controversial topics. There are much more productive uses of my time and of those spaces.

    Whether or not people are violating the first amendment or not, I can say that they are probably turning some people away by posting those things. If you’re tweeting your religious beliefs to a wide audience, there’s no guarantee that that audience agrees with your beliefs and everything else you say may be discounted because of what you’re posting. I wouldn’t want to turn away potential colleagues (or students!) simply because we disagree on an issue that has nothing to do with my professional life or the subject I teach.

  9. Jon Becker says:

    @Laura (and @moses), I, too, am concerned about the chilling effects on aspiring educators. But, that’s partly why I raise these issues. I want us to discuss them, play them out, make the gray areas a tiny bit less gray, etc. How we behave in public spaces (and, frankly, even private ones; see e.g. the NAMBLA case) is really important for us to consider.

    And, @Laura, I’m largely with you on your last point. I want people to be authentic in all aspects of their life, but there are some things we shouldn’t say out loud because people who trust us might lose respect for us (rightly or wrongly). As much as some like to say and believe that there is some blanket concept called “freedom of speech,” the truth is that we censor ourselves all the time in all parts of our lives.

  10. There is a big difference between NAMBLA (and sites that deliberately advocate harming children) and the free expression of one’s religion. In that sense, it isn’t all that different from being involved in Al-Queda and claiming it as “political speech.” I think that comparison is a little disingenuous, John. Yes, employees can fire us for private behaviors, but they are negotiated through contractual law.

    Requiring an employee to censor religious views simply because they do not include “all religions” is asking teachers to advocate either religious relativity or a secular humanist agnosticism. Either way, that denies an individual the opportunity to express his or her identity.

    If offensiveness is the litmus test, what happens when a gay teacher speaks openly about his or her identity and lifestyle choice and it offends neo-con parents? Shouldn’t that teacher be protected under the First Amendment as well?

    In this respect, social media is not all that different from any other public place where a teacher might choose to protest, speak up, publish, etc. Twitter is not a captive audience and it is not sponsored by a school district. If the issue is really “broadcasting,” then how public does it have to be and how many people need to show up? What about attending a protest? Voting? Being interviewed about political opinions? Speaking at a large religious institution?

    Asking someone to deliberately censor personal beliefs regarding faith when it is outside of the school hours and functions is an attack on free exercise. We don’t expect the same from the military and you don’t even see the same from politicians (who are actively, openly campaigning to the public).

    Educators can respectfully share their beliefs while also showing empathy toward others. Demanding that they self-censor the core beliefs that shape the way they live is asking them to hide the very essence of who they are.

  11. Jon Becker says:

    Yes, @johntspencer, substantively, there is a difference between the NAMBLA case and the issues I’m raising. My point is only that our “freedoms” aren’t unlimited. Freedom of association is limited by not harming kids. Similarly, freedom of expression, when acting as a state actor, is limited by the Establishment Clause.

    Ultimately, you believe that what you do on Twitter is not part of your professional identity, not pursuant to your job duties, and, therefore, not actionable by your employer. At this point, I think I disagree. And, I’d bet that if you asked the lawyers who represent your district if it’s OK for you to cite scripture on Twitter, they’d counsel you not to.

  12. Tim Owens says:

    If Twitter is a space where we do PROFESSIONAL networking, is it part of our workplace environment? Is it extending our workplaces beyond our offices, classrooms, etc.?

    Personally I have to echo John Spencer’s thoughts here, my life is built around “professional” networking in way to many contexts to attempt to wrap formal constraints about how I present myself. In my eyes when I’m doing something in the service of UMW and they’re paying me for it then I will represent them appropriately and follow a specific set of guidelines. But the PD I seek on my own and networks I interact with as personal/professional dev outside of whatever job is employing me at the moment shouldn’t be restricted with the same guidelines.

  13. Kris Weinzap says:

    We are having this discussion largely because we believe that there is a difference, albeit subtle, between online identity and professional identity. Most of us remember a world when there was no such thing. (And yes, I sound like my grandma here.) But think about it- our students see no difference between the two. For people growing up in a world where social media has always existed, an online identity is a direct reflection of self.

    So. When we post Bible verses on Twitter or post political articles on FB, we have to remember that there are readers out there who see no separation of identity. The issues of “in-class” and “real world” and “online identity” do not exist, because for them, there’s no distinction.

    We may be protected by the First Amendment if there was any controversy, but let’s face it- Educators don’t really have complete freedom of speech. Look at your contracts.

  14. Diane Main says:

    First, let me say that I don’t teach in a public school, though I do teach some classes for public college/university, so I more or less do what I want. However, if I choose to tweet scripture references or quotes, I don’t see that as establishment of religion. Is any of us really so arrogant as to believe that a few tweets is enough to dictate to our followers that they should instantly become His followers?

    I follow a number of educators who are Jewish. I am Christian. I enjoy hearing about how they celebrate Passover as I am preparing to celebrate Easter. If my friends of other faiths share about their own observances, I welcome such opportunities to learn. Teachers are under a highly critical microscope enough already. If we communicate with students online, there’s fear that we’re pedophiles. Everything we do is subject to suspicion and scrutiny. Now we can’t even be clear that we choose to have the moral compass faith can provide for guidance in our very challenging careers? I’m done with people of faith having to apologize for their beliefs. Someone made a good point about gay and lesbian teachers: do they have to hide? What about people in interracial relationships? Go back in time a bit and they were considered criminals.

    When will it finally be time to say “enough already”? Teachers have to meet an impossibly high standard for the public eye, and then still get pink-slipped when their hungry, impoverished, or non-English speaking students can’t make the grade on a dumb test.

  15. Jon,

    I collect a stream of thought as I read your post and the comments that followed. I could take the time to edit them, weigh them, and decide if they were offending or not . . . but I am just going to post them as I collected them and see if anything resonates with you or any of the others that responded. I feel like this is the most authentic approach for responding. Please remember these were raw, unedited thoughts that occurred as I read . . .

    Taken to its logical extent your argument would support the idea that anyone working for the state/government must be areligious in all their communications inside and outside of the office. One could not even espouse an atheistic world view (or religion, as atheism requires as much faith as any theistic religion, therefore is arguably a religion).
    If I am a public school teacher does the fact I work for the state preclude my attendance at religious activities, such as, but not limited church attendance? Those who I work with, teach, and have only a professional functional relationship might see me, therefore my actions would be a tangible expression of my religious faith.
    What about conversations at the market, theater, or other public sphere where I might be recognized as being a public school teacher? Your argument suggests that any public expression or action that is tied to my faith is potentially an act of establishment.
    The fine line you are talking about is almost imperceptible.
    There was a time that “water cooler” discussion wasn’t policed the way it is today. Our pluralistic society has taken

    If twitter is akin to conversation, and there are those who feel it is, then the suggestion that my conversation (as a public school educator) can be regulated is a complete infringement on my right to a private, personal life. If all I do in the sphere of twitter falls under the establishment clause, then so do my entertainment choices, my reading choices, my eating choices . . . because they all might be observed by a student, a parent, a colleague . . . in which case, by your posited idea, I am “establishing” a religion.

    The idea that I should at all times filter my speech, because I am a “public” employee seems to fly in the face of the all that this country was founded on. The public square, which is a much more apt metaphor for Twitter is a place where the free exchange of ideas can occur. It is in that space that I, as a public school educator, should feel free to express my particular, well informed point of view. If I can’t, where can I? If every time I open my mouth I must check first to make sure there is no one even marginally associated with my work place, at what point am I truly free to express my ideas, thoughts, beliefs, etc?

    The problem here is “losing one’s job” . . . are you willing to allow yourself to be constrained for the purpose of getting a paycheck. If your proposition is correct, that when you sign up to become a public educator your words and actions become a representation of the state, then you are making a choice to limit your ability to express thought or idea. I am not sure that is what the founders intended, but it is what has evolved over the decades. In a truly open society, the expression of faith would be seen solely as the expression of the individual instead of making the illogical leap of assumption that if a person in the public sphere makes a comment of faith they are “establishing” a religion. What do you do with the prayer in Congress? The national day of prayer presided over by the President? The list of potential contradiction is endless.
    Twitter represents my conversations in the public square with people I decide to associate with. My employment does not extend to the reality that because I am an educator I decide to associate with other educators. We allow the dividing line to be violated because we want to protect our own POV. If we all allowed for diversity of thought and speech, and weren’t so easily offended by differing points of view this wouldn’t be an issue.

  16. Deven Black says:

    I am not in the least bit religious. I do not discuss my lack of religion on my Twitter feed, in my blog or anywhere else in public not because I don’t think I have the right to, and not because I am a public school teacher; I don’t discuss my lack of religious conviction publicly (except for here and now, I guess) because I don”t think it is that interesting to anyone other than me and my immediate family and I am not trying to advocate that anyone else should share my lack of religious conviction. I did, however, wish many people a happy Easter, happy Passover or both, leaving it up to them which to take pleasure in or offense at.

    That said, I have every right to advocate for my individual brand of disinterest anywhere I choose to do it other than where I am being paid by the government to do something else. The government pays me to teach children in a building from 8:10AM until 2:30PM on Mondays and Fridays and until 3:20PM Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I also don’t have the right to advocate my religion, lack of it, or other political standings within the school building in which I teach because it cannot be reasonable assumed that when I am in the building I am not acting as a representative of the government.

    I Tweet, I blog, I Facebook and I Google+ on my own computer on my own time in my role as a private citizen who happens to be a teacher. It does not matter whether I think I get developed professionally on Twitter or whether other people think anything I Tweet or blog or otherwise place on social networking sites contributes to their professional development as a teacher. It does not matter even if my intent is to receive professional development via Twitter, doing so does not make me an agent of the government.

    I read a lot of religious stuff on Easter, and even some on the start of Passover. I was not offended and though some of that stuff was posted by teachers and school administrators, I did not think for a moment that they were acting in their professional capacities, even when I knew some of them to teach or administer in parochial schools.

    You might argue that a student is neither as sophisticated as I nor as hard to offend, but that is, for the most part, irrelevant. I neither require or students to read my posts nor recommend ther do so. If I did, that would be improper whether or not I post religious, political, issues-oriented or sports-related items.

    If students, parents, or anyone else chooses to read my writing in any form they are welcome to do so as I make almost everything I write fully public, but they do so at their risk. I am happy to take responsibility for what I write, but I am neither willing nor able to take responsibility for whoever reads it and no one can require me to do so. So, as I said, I wished people a happy Easter and a happy Passover. I wish people an easy fast on Yom Kippur and on Ramadan. Take it or leave it, it is up to you.

  17. Jon Becker says:

    All, let me try to clarify some things.

    First, I’m not telling anybody not to do anything. I’m raising issues, asking questions, etc. I offered an argument for consideration.

    Second, for purposes of Establishment Clause jurisprudence, there is the foundational requirement that the actions/behaviors in question are carried out by a “state actor.” Thus, my argument is premised by the claim that public school educators could be expressing themselves on Twitter as part of their job. Possible evidence behind that claim are statements like, “Twitter has been an amazing space for professional development. I wish my district would grant me credit for PD hours for participating in #edchat…” Or, “Sometimes during my prep period I’m looking for good resources and I wish Twitter wasn’t blocked so I could ask my followers…” Or, ”

    Third, and relatedly, there is an important distinction here. “Public,” in this case, means “for the state” or “as a government official.” Public school educators are state actors; they are the government. So, yes, @Greg, “when you sign up to become a public educator your words and actions become a representation of the state…then you are making a choice to limit your ability to express thought or idea.” Sorry if you don’t like that; I’m just the court messenger on this long-standing legal doctrine.

    However, when I say “public” here, I don’t mean “visible.” When you go to church or synagogue, you do so as a private citizen. Sure, people can see you, but you aren’t going as part of your job (i.e. as a state actor). You can have all the conversations you want at the market, the theater, the mall, etc. You’re not doing that as part of your job. You can attend religious marches. You can exercise your religion quite freely as a private citizen, even if you do so in ways that are visible to others. But, when you are doing your job, the game changes.

    I’ll leave it there for now and see if that clarifies anything. Maybe, maybe not?

  18. Eric Sundberg says:

    Jon, since you left some of us for Virginia I’ll start with a Thomas Jefferson reference. In a letter to Benjamin Rush, when he was at his most hostile to organized religion, Jefferson asserted that he would be eternally hostile to “every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” When he was more moderate, in the preamble to the Virginia Statutes for Religious Freedom, he wrote “Almighty God hath created the mind free…All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens…are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion…” In one case his hostility was toward religious leaders, in the other it was against temporal leaders who would interfere with free minds expressing religious ideas. In both cases that which we must be hostile toward is that which would interfere with free thinking and expression. The enemy is not religion per se. It is anything that interferes with free thinking minds. It strikes me as a little sad that the expansion of the public square provided by social media is now also an expansion of the zone in which one must be careful about expressing one’s opinions and even the beliefs that are the starting points for one’s thinking. When public school educators consider whether they should express religious views, quote one holy book or another, or even say “god bless you” rather than gesundheit, they should ask themselves if any self-censorship is due to their understanding of the law, to their own belief that religious views ought not to be expressed in professional forums or to the fear that the expression of these beliefs or opinions would be detrimental to their careers. I don’t believe that courts are currently interpreting the Constitution in a way that would make it illegal for school leaders to express religious opinions, let alone quote scripture on social media in which they also project themselves professionally. Should that day come, it would be a tragedy. I agree with some of the others who have posted here when they say that these forums are quite different from classrooms. They seem more akin to faculty lunchrooms or professional conferences wherein someone may well try to convince me to visit their mosque or church. I might get bent out of shape when the attempt is made but, as some say, “that’s America.” Moreover, to think of religious freedom as merely a private activity is to miss the essence of several of the major world religions which are, well, evangelical. Believers cannot be expected to stay cloistered. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam all include a general expectation that adherents will try to bear witness to their tenets out in the world. I therefore I have difficulty comparing such expression to hate speech. Certainly such expression can be annoying but that alone neither makes it illegal nor immoral. Each of us needs to consider how tolerant we ought to be when someone lives out their faith in front of us. In the end, I would advise educators to be very careful about religious expression in professional forums because it can impose on the sensibilities of one’s colleagues. Furthermore, there can be real political consequences affecting one’s career ambitions. Unlike what we say in lunchrooms what we write online endures. The professorial community is a already a fairly safe community in which to express contempt for religious beliefs and the public education community is getting there. Whether or not one is protected by law or tenure, the truth is a professional forum will serve its participants best when it is mostly about professional questions. But it should (and ought to) be okay to keep it fun and interesting.

  19. S. King says:

    If I understanding the premise of the issue raised it is about Twitter being a ‘tool’ for professional development and professional sharing and therefore subject to the legal constraints public educators have in their speech. I think the discussion has been interesting and has made me think. I struggle with the idea that my learning is sometimes “professional” and I guess sometimes not. I must say that I also do not understand the feeling that we (educators) should need to ‘get credit’ for spending time on Twitter or reading blogs or any type of on-line interaction. I never thought about reading educational literature off-line only if I received credit. I struggle with having to separate who I am as a person from who I am in my professional life. I believe it was never the intent of limiting speech & actions in the course of one’s work to limit any speech or actions outside of the work environment, though I do believe our country is going more and more in that direction. It is a troubling direction to me.

  20. Stephen Rahn says:

    I think it boils down to a “captive audience” situation. Putting religious messages on the walls of our public schools means that our students can’t avoid them. They are “captive to the message” in that regard. But no one is a “captive” of someone’s Twitter stream. I’m not religious, but I learn more about the people I follow when they post occasional things relating to their religion. If someone started to go overboard with it, I would have to make a decision about possibly unfollowing them. I’ve yet to have to make such a choice, however. I expected quite a few religious tweets on Easter, so it was no big deal for me.

    And I think that if you feel like this is a violation of the establishment clause that you should also argue that teachers should not be allowed to go to church. After all, people (students) could see them in that setting, right? Best not to let teachers show any signs that they are religious!

  21. Dave Meister says:

    Interesting conversation!
    I am not sure I can define my reasons, but I choose not to tweet scripture nor talk about my religious views on social media. Like Beth Still, I see my use of Twitter and my blog as an extension of my professional life. I choose not to give religious view unless asked and always couch those comments in the context of this is what I believe and we have the freedom to believe as we choose. I am a 12 month employee of a public school district that is expected to work on behalf of the Board of Education when called upon to do so. This includes some Sunday activities…in other words, I am never off the clock. Now, I have some questions: I tweet, blog and comment with students, employees and in large part with people I have never met— Do I need to refrain from lectoring (reading the excerpts from The Bible during mass) because employees and students attend the same church? Do my professional obligations stop at the church door? Could I be influencing students and staff by my visible conduct of my religion? You might say no because those folks choose to go to church and are not forced to. BUT does my presence there possibly affect them because of my position? I would like to think not. I am told that I should not pray at the flag pole in the morning at school…it breaks the establishment clause. I can’t tell you how offended I am by that. Why can’t I publicly express my beliefs because of my position? Should I tweet Biblical verses? I choose not to, but I think those who do are within their rights to do so. Like at church, where people freely choose to attend, if they accept my participation in mass they should also accept (ignore if they choose) my tweets about religion or unfollow me. They still have a choice. I know opinions such as mine have no legal weight, but the establishment clause (IMHO) should not restrict the free expression of behavior simply because it is religious in nature.

  22. Jon Becker says:

    @Stephen and @Dave – I addressed your points in my last comment. I wrote:

    “However, when I say “public” here, I don’t mean “visible.” When you go to church or synagogue, you do so as a private citizen. Sure, people can see you, but you aren’t going as part of your job (i.e. as a state actor). You can have all the conversations you want at the market, the theater, the mall, etc. You’re not doing that as part of your job. You can attend religious marches. You can exercise your religion quite freely as a private citizen, even if you do so in ways that are visible to others. But, when you are doing your job, the game changes.”

  23. Stephen Rahn says:

    I don’t know of any educators who truly consider Twitter to be an official part of their job. I think it can be a part of one’s personalized professional development, of course, but if a district required an educator to use Twitter professionally then I would definitely say that religion should be kept out of it completely. But Twitter (and most of social media) is still a relatively new concept and we are all finding our own ways to deal with it properly.

    The issue of offering “credit” for Twitter PD is also interesting. If a district were to do that, I would expect some sort of official guidelines to be put in place. As much as I like talking baseball on Twitter, if I were receiving and kind of PD credit I would create a separate account for that.

  24. [...] me see if I can make the argument I make in my last post a little more viable through the use of a hypothetical. This is a common technique in legal [...]

  25. You are talking about some pretty mainstream stuff here with regards to religion. I wonder how the reaction/thinking might be different if the postings came from those from a more esoteric religious/philosophical/political tradition. Certainly there are quite a few traditions completely outside the mainstream that would raise catcalls in some quarters not just in being religious in nature but in being of a specific religion; for example where would this conversation go if the public university basketball coach were a Thelemite as opposed to someone from a mainstream Abrahamic faith? If he were quoting Crowley as opposed to Paul?


  26. John says:


    I would not give credit to a teacher for maintaining a Twitter account for professional development purposes, nor would I give “credit” for reading some groundbreaking, innovative blogs on how to improve educational practice. Read a book on classroom management? Same thing.

    If, however, a teacher does something with what they learned – no matter the source – then I think we’ve got a formula we can use. “I met some educators in Singapore on Twitter, and we’re starting an international dialog next week with students in their 5th grade class and ours… I’m going to write up our experiences to share with other teachers..” – > Bingo.

    I personally value educators who consider themselves lifelong learners and who intrinsically seek out the tools for learning. And as you have said – the use of these tools for strictly only one single use is messy at this point. Yet – as educators we are held to a higher standard in society – and any use of social tools should reflect our understanding of this standard.

    Our school and district leaders owe teachers the burden of understanding the potential pitfalls of using social media and sharing best practices and discussing the issues regularly.

  27. Tom says:

    Nothing like combining religion, technology, and Constitutional rights to stir up emotion.

    My interpretation is that Jon is bringing up an area where the educational community as a whole might need to reflect. It’s not black/white and it has nothing to do with what feels “right.” There are legal issues involved and blurry understandings of public/private in a relatively new media space where teachers are actively cultivating Twitter as a work related tool (one that isn’t restricted to PD in many cases and one that is intentionally used as a communication medium with parents in others).

    There is no question that for many there is an increasing blur between professional and private lives. It is certainly in full swing in my life. I do things with that understanding. I intentionally blend the two because I find the advantages in doing that outweigh whatever censorship I feel compelled to self-impose. (That being said, I’d probably react pretty aggressively against any attempt by the division to decide what I could say. That’s an emotional response though as opposed to a logical one. )

    I think the statement might be you can (and maybe should) do whatever you feel is right for you personally but you ought to do it with an understanding of the ramifications and various legal entanglements that might arise.

    This is the same world where this woman was fired for smiling with some cups of alcohol and Chesterfield fired this guy for painting with his butt. It was all after hours etc. etc.

    “Is it ‘right’?” isn’t really the question. The question needs to be “What do I need to know/think about to make informed choices?”

  28. Shelly,
    I would welcome more open conversation from some of the more bizarre, esoteric religions. As long as it isn’t during classtime with a captive audience, I’m okay with that.

  29. Tom says:

    J. Spencer,

    Your own personal views on other religions aside, I think the point is that it’s not too controversial to post things related to Christianity that might push the boundaries of the law in a predominately Christian culture. It’d be interesting to see the public push back (and subsequent legal action) when the religion being addressed was something like Rastafarianism or Voodoo.

  30. I dislike any attempt at censorship of any kind simply because I don’t want to be censored either. As a Christian I am very aware that persecution because of religious beliefs happen, I do not want to be on either side of the persecution.

    Any law that curtails my freedom of speech can also curtail others who have different beliefs. If we protect one view we need to be willing to protect them all. This is definitely a difference I have with both of our major political parties.

    Regardless of the law, this to me falls under an inalienable right.

  31. In an ideal world we’d have seperation of school and state for many of the same reasons we have a seperation of church and state. There is a conflict in that democracy requires an educated population and at the same time government schools are in a real sense a conflict of interest. Allowing teachers a bit of leway in how and what they communicate seems like a good thing in the long run. We must recognized that individual statements and actions by teachers, unless required, are not always state actions. It’s a hard line to draw but the 1st amendment is complciated.

  32. Hey Jon,
    I was at a conference today and a few of us were talking about the issue you raised in this post. Here’s a few scenarios that I think you’ve alluded to, but I’m wondering if you could flesh out your thinking a bit more on them.

    1) Educator ‘working’ at Panera. It’s not uncommon for a few educators to meet up at Panera to grade papers together, swap teaching strategies, etc. Let’s assume this isn’t during the contract day. This is a public place, i.e. the market, theatre or mall, as you described in a previous comment. If I were to quote scripture at Panera aloud, from what I understand you saying, this would likely be permissible. Would this change if we were getting together as a grade level team? What if it was a few teachers and our administrator? **What if we met for the purpose of talking about summer vacation plans, but the conversation took a turn towards our favorite instructional strategies?

    2) Educator attending an education conference. Would it be permissible for me to quote scripture during a presentation? (I’m also wondering if it is okay to quote scripture at a conference during a non-contract day) **What about mentioning scripture to someone in the hallway in between sessions or in the restroom? (i.e. “Hey Dave. Godo to see you! Yeah, it’s been a while since we’ve talked. Yeah, sounds like you’ve been going through a difficult time. Let me tell you what I’ve been learning in my Bible study…”)

    In my mind, these two scenarios create a grey line between private citizen and your suggestion about private citizen life,
    “You can have all the conversations you want at the market, the theater, the mall, etc. You’re not doing that as part of your job. You can attend religious marches. You can exercise your religion quite freely as a private citizen, even if you do so in ways that are visible to others. But, when you are doing your job, the game changes”

    **I’m wondering where the fine line is between “doing your job” and living a private life, particularly how all of this plays out on Twitter. I see these same types of scenarios through social media.
    @JohnDoe tell me more about your grading system!
    @reply here’s the link
    @JohnDoe thx! Have a great day!
    (three days later)
    @JohnDoe hope you’re having a good day today. John 3:16

    Looking forward to your thoughts. I respect your opinion as an ed. law guy.

  33. Quick edit:

    In my mind, these two scenarios create a grey line between Twitter as professional identity and your suggestion about private citizen life,

  34. Jon Becker says:

    @Matt – For me, the permanence of Twitter is what makes things a little different and what causes me to raise these issues. In other words, if you say something on Twitter, it lingers and somebody could see it long after you said it. That distinguishes it from the Panera scenario. The conference scenario is a little more clear. I assume you’d be there as a representative of your school/district, or at least “as part of your job.” So, no, you can’t promote religion as part of your presentation (which has an audience). Private conversations in the hallways are a little different, but not much. What if the person you’re speaking with is like the parent in the hypothetical in my last post?

  35. Sara Carter says:

    Wait. I may have missed some comments, but they appear to all be from an administrative/educational institution perspective.
    But as a person with a background in scholastic publications, my question is, “Who is damaged by her statement (tweet, publication, utterance, etc.)
    Did this defame or cause damage (real or in reputation) to the school district? Did this damage the parent or a student? Certainly it was not slanderous or nor uttered with malicious intent; nor was there a false light shed on the school. Statements of opinion are not generally considered defamation.
    It has essentially been hashed out here:

  36. Sara Carter raises the question, “Who is damaged by her statement (tweet, publication, utterance, etc.)” – and while I won’t repeat my thoughts on the role of “public actor” made on Jon’s follow-up post, I want to deepen this inquiry.

    Those of us who work in the public realm for institutions of government have, I believe, a legal requirement to be equally welcoming to all groups who might legitimately come before us. This is true of police, of firefighters, of county clerks, and of teachers. To alter the terms of “welcome” according to religion or race is constitutionally prohibited (1st and 14th Amendments), to alter those terms based on gender and/or other differences is more likely to be an issue for other laws or US state constitutions.

    “Who is damaged?” is not a question the “majority” or, in this case, the teacher or the school as an institution can answer. The answer rather comes from any of the ultimate users of this public service. If I, perhaps because I am Jewish, or Atheist, or Islamic, feel “less welcome” or “less comfortable” because of the teacher’s actions, the coach’s actions, whatever, damage is done because the teacher or coach has decided to use their role as a “public actor” to establish one religion above others. Sure, you can say that no one is forced to play basketball at Indiana, but it is clearly true that Indiana University cannot determine its basketball roster based on religion. And if I am the Atheist player during prayer time, that is a problem. If I am the Atheist potential IU student and basketball player, Crean’s prayers sure seem to limit my opportunities. And that is illegal.

    There is, of course, a wide swath of legal gray area here, but to me, much less gray area in terms of ethics. I do not even believe that educators should commercially brand themselves in any public way – “Apple Distinguished Educator,” “Google Teacher Academy” because I believe it creates separations between “included” and “excluded” students and homes. So I cannot imagine, in a public forum, combining my position in public education with a declaration of my religious identity.

    Every job comes with limitations. Ozzie Guillen might say anything he wanted about Fidel Castro as manager of the White Sox (and did), but the rules changed when his employer became the Florida/Miami Marlins. Tom Crean could surely say some things about religion when coaching at a Jesuit university (but surely not other things), and those rules – those limits – change when he takes a job at a university which is the flagship institution of a constitutionally secular state.

    As many a soldier, sailor, airman, and marine have discovered, those rules against combining military identity and politics are very real. And what might be perfectly acceptable conversation between police partners in a radio car become something very different when those cops step out onto a public sidewalk.

    Because we do not know the potential damage done either immediately or off in the future, we do not know how things are repeated and re-transmitted. We do not know the religions of our students two years hence.

    So, ethically and legally, we err on the side of caution, and leave religion to the home and house of worship.

  37. [...] Twitter, professional identity, and the 1st Amendment – Educational Insanity Many, many public school educators have made claims to the effect of “Twitter is the best source of professional development I’ve ever known…” Or, “Twitter is an amazing part of my personal/professional learning network (PLN)…” These same folks participate in education-related Twitter chats, use Twitter to announce blog posts related to education, etc. In other words, their Twitter account is very much a part of their professional identity. [...]

  38. Ed Jones says:

    Jon, I sat on this for 24, and figure you seem bored, so I’ll send it along. E Pluribus Unum. :-)

    Jon, stopped by here today (May 9) because of the political tweets from your twitter account today.

    My question is, should State Education Professors adhere to the Hatch Act on Twitter?

    The answer, of course, is maybe State Education Professors for other reasons should refrain from obviously political tweets on an account which people sign on to for purely professional reasons. But then, again, if that account is in the State Education Professor’s personal name, perhaps the reader should be prepared to endure a bit of partisan discourse on Occasion?

    So I shouldn’t be offended at your tweeting against J.C. Watts because he doesn’t agree with Melissa Harris-Perry. Or if I am offended, that’s my business–not yours or the States.

    Well, wait. In your particular case, you’ve made it clear that social media should be counted toward your tenure and promotion as a State Expert on Education. So we’re back to that hypothetical letter to your Dean.

    But doesn’t this come down to me just disagreeing with you?

    If I am offended, shouldn’t you stop tweeting it?

    After all, you did support today the firing of that poor columnist who thought what most Americans think.

    For reasons I cannot understand, once people get into the “professional academic space” they feel a need to shut up everyone who disagrees with them.

    There is no possible reading of the establishment clause which says that a teacher should not tweet “He is Risen” on their twitter account on Easter Sunday. There is, in fact, no possible interpretation of the establishment clause which connects a teacher to the establishment clause in any way, shape, or form. (Your J.D. notwithstanding.)

    Now, it may be that we as a society have determined that “not offending anyone” is now a constitutional right, in the same way that we determined in 1865 and 1870 that our previous views on slavery, race, and citizenship needed changed. If so, we should do as we did in those days and make “No person shall be offended” a constitutional amendment.

    There is, of course, an alternative way of doing things. We could appeal to just plain common sense. We could ask each of the states to modify their constitution, laws, or interpretations. We could define professional standards. Appealing to the establishment clause here, however, is intellectual laziness of the grandest and most dangerous kind.

    That said, your warning is probably well given, because there are judges just so lazy.

    But what I actually wanted to ask is, do you think you deserve an exemption from the Hatch Act?

    Because tweeting political views is dangerous stuff!

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