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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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