"How Much Would You Pay To..."
"...be able to take back all of the photos that you ever posted onto Facebook?"
That was the rueful question I overheard uttered by a dejected-looking woman at Bluestem Brasserie the other night. Which elicited a cackle from her dining partner, and then the somewhat unkind response, "For what YOU've been posting? Thousands of dollars!"
Viki Knox, a special education teacher at Union High School in New Jersey, is probably asking herself that very same question right now. She was escorted off of school premises and is being investigated today for homophobic comments which she allegedly posted on her personal Facebook page. The comments were in reaction to the school's photographic display honoring October as LGBT history month.
According to reports in the New York Times, Newark Star Ledger, and other publications, Knox wrote comments saying that being gay "is a perverted spirit that has existed from the beginning of creation," and a "sin" that "breeds like cancer." As others engaged her on Facebook to challenge Knox's statements, she went on to state that, "Union is not South Orange or Maplewood, where one out of four families consist of two Mommies or daddies. Why parade your unnatural immoral behaviors before the rest of us? 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 has since removed Knox's page from public view, but the controversy continues to escalate over what is appropriate - and legally actionable - when people in positions of authority post their personal views on social media. The ACLU of New Jersey has defended Knox's statements. "Although we do not agree with the sentiments expressed on Ms. Knox’s personal Facebook page, her comments are protected by the First Amendment," stated Ed Barocas, the group’s legal director. "The ACLU believes that the response to offensive speech is not the restriction of speech, but more speech."
The counter-argument was posed by John Paragono, a lawyer and former Union Township councilman and municipal judge, who said, "Hateful public comments from a teacher cannot be tolerated. She has a right to say it. But she does not have a right to keep her job after saying it."
Knox's case is the latest in a growing series of incidents which highlight the uncharted and often muddy waters of the boundaries between personal privacy and professional conduct on social media. Some free speech advocates say that people like Knox have an unconditional right to express themselves as they wish when they are "off the clock." Others say that people in positions of authority - especially those who teach young children or others who might be perceived as being impressionable to strong personal convictions in the classroom or work environment - must be held to a higher level of scrutiny even in their personal lives. In the case of Knox, those who subscribe to the latter train of thought point out that she followed up her homophobic comments with statements such as, "That is what I teach and preach." They raise the question of whether or not Knox, considering how strongly she expressed herself on Facebook, is able to adequately perform her professional duties in the classroom setting, such as enforcing New Jersey's recently implemented anti-bullying law.
A few miles away in Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman addressed the issues of the ethnics of how individuals in modern society can/should manage new technologies in her opening remarks for the university's school year on September 11th. "In the space of your short lifetimes, information has migrated from the library to the desktop to the backpack, and increasingly to the pocket. There is the potential for all the world's information to be at your fingertips all the time," she said. And then President Tilghman continued, "Yet realizing this revolutionary potential will take far more than the ability to access the world's information. It will require the ability to organize that information so that patterns can be discerned within it; to recognize unexpected connections between disparate bodies of knowledge; to apply the tools of logic and moral reasoning in order to extract true understanding; and to muster the courage to draw conclusions and then change your mind when new facts come to light. Without a well-prepared human mind, the abundance of information at our disposal will remain a cacophony rather than a symphony."
Ms. Knox would be well-advised to heed her fellow New Jersey educator's words. In a best-case scenario, Ms. Knox will have the courage to change her mind as a result of the interactions spurred by her Facebook postings.
Let's hope this social media story does have such a happy ending.