Was This Michigan Teacher Fired For Promoting Gay Rights?

It wasn’t very long ago that having a Gay-Straight Alliance in school was problematic pretty much everywhere. Nowadays, it’s becoming increasingly common, even in more conservative areas of the country, if not entirely without controversy. But what about when it’s so controversial it gets the teacher behind it fired?

That may be what happened at Corunna High School, near Lansing, MI. A former high school teacher, Brook Johnson, claims she was fired by the district for advising a Diversity Club that promoted LGBT equality, including by putting up posters of “influential people in the gay and lesbian community.” Her diversity club experience was supposedly part of bad reviews she received before her firing, and now she’s suing the Corunna School District, with the aid of the ACLU.

According to the Palm Beach Post, the school board is currently declining to comment because they have yet to be served with the lawsuit. Johnson’s lawyer, Jonathan Marko, based in Royal Oak, claims that her negative evaluations were “solely because of her involvement with the club,” although that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was purely due to the gay posters incident.

Attn. Jon Marko and Brook Johnson via ABC 12

Attn. Jonathan Marko and Brook Johnson via ABC 12

There’s also the fact that the posters controversy – in which the school board initially voted to have them removed, but later changed their mind – happened nearly two years before the school district allowed Johnson’s contract to expire. Yet Johnson claims that because of the incident she “found herself ostracized” over time and that eventually resulted in her firing. In an interview with NPR’s Michigan Radio, Marko had this to say:

They wanted to punish her for exercising her First Amendment rights. And because they disagreed with her, they were going to drive her out. And that’s what the[y] ultimately did and she was ultimately fired.

The NPR interview also paraphrases Marko as saying that “the Diversity Club promoted tolerance and equality for all, but an administrator told Johnson that was in direct conflict with Corunna’s values.” Because, of course, “community values” are more important than keeping queer kids safe. And in this case, Johnson herself as well: she is gay, though she claims she was not out until after her firing.

We’ve heard this “values” language before, but even for Michigan, this particular fight seems like something from ages ago. Gay rights in general have moved very fast in the past decade, but the acceptance of GSAs in schools has come particularly far, largely in response to the gay teen suicide epidemic. When my own mother was a teacher advising a Diversity Club at a Macomb County public high school in the mid-2000s, the school administration told her the club could only discuss racial and religious diversity and not LGBT acceptance. They just didn’t want to open that can of worms in a school full of conservative religious students. But even though that was a mere eight years ago, it seems eons away today, when there is so much press given to the difficult high school experiences of queer teens and their need for supportive groups like diversity clubs or GSAs.

via ABC-12

via ABC-12

Part of the problem is that Michigan, with its lack of legislation protecting LGBT people against job discrimination, would give Johnson no legal defense if she had been fired over her sexual orientation. But since apparently she wasn’t out until after her firing, if the issue truly was about the club and the posters, that could be a freedom of speech issue, which is how the ACLU is presenting it – namely, that the school is censoring political speech they didn’t like. Of course, the school eventually did decide to allow the posters, but if they decided that they didn’t want Johnson for that reason, that would still fall under them not respecting her First Amendment rights. In Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969), a Supreme Court case involving students suspended for wearing anti-war armbands, the Warren court decided that schools must protect the freedom of speech on political matters as long as they do not disrupt the educational environment, with Justice Abe Fortas writing in the majority opinion, “Neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” It’s hard to argue how something “disrupts education” simply by not being in line with “community values”; certainly, the whole reason the posters were up in the first place was likely to educate Corunna High students about gay icons.

What’s even more hopeful is that maybe Johnson’s case will set a legal standard that will help to reverse Michigan’s extremely reactionary LGBT rights record, and move things toward ensuring real protection for not just a pro-LGBT diversity club, but also for actual out LGBT teachers like Johnson. With Michigan’s state government as far to the right as it is now, this might be a bit of a pipe dream – but with time, we can hope.

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Rose is a 24-year-old Detroit native currently living in Boston, where she is working on her master's degree in musicology. Classical music, history, 1960s rock bands, cartoons, cats, Diet Coke, old movies and the Detroit Tigers are just a few of her favorite things. Besides Autostraddle, she works as a streaming reviewer for Anime New Network and has also written for Bitch and her own media-analysis blog. You should follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.

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9 Comments

  1. Thumb up 6

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    oh shit, I went to high school here. I’m not surprised.

    I’m actually more surprised to learn that they even have a diversity club, definitely wasn’t happening when I was in school there. back then they were suspending people for saying the word gay or any gay PDA (but straight PDA was fine). I remember a butch girl getting shit for using the girls bathroom too.

    this school is a big part of why I was soooo deep in the closet and didn’t come out till I moved out sf. being gay was not something you wanted to be in corunna mich. get em johnson!

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    I have no idea what the facts in this case are, but the “Free Speech” rights of teachers are over simplified in this article. I’m a progressive/liberal, atheist teacher, but my students will never, through what I say or do at school, have a clue about my politics or lack of religion. Teachers must straddle two sides of the first amendment. On one side, my “free speech rights” may not be checked in at the door when I go to school, but, on the other side, they are trumped by the right of my students to be free from the government (me in this case) telling them what to think about politics, religion, etc.

    It was said best in the 1943 W. Va. State Board of Ed. v. Barnette Supreme Court case that established that students can not be forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Writing for the majority, Justice Robert Jackson wrote, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein”

    Don’t get me wrong. A science teacher should still teach that, according to geological evidence, Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. What the science teacher cannot say is, “If your religion tells you that the earth is 6000 years old, then it is wrong.” Instead, that teacher must leave the religious question alone and let students figure out the religious questions for themselves.

    I don’t know if the teacher in this story was being persecuted for sponsoring a club, which should be protected, or if she was espousing to her students what to think about controversial issues (or perhaps there is some other issues), that violated her students’ right from government entanglement in their (and their parents’) 1st amendment rights. I would be surprised if this article is the whole story, so I will wait until we hear from the school. I just want to point out that we teachers do not have the same free speech rights in the classroom that we have as ordinary citizens outside of class.

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      She was in trouble for her activities in a club, so that would be the first option of what you mentioned. I don’t think anyone who is familiar with the history of GSAs and such in schools would be surprised that that might, indeed, be the “full story.”

      First of all, this is mainly dealing with rights, not what teachers should and should not do – and when it comes to rights to voice their political opinions, the Tinker opinion makes it clear that teachers are protected as students are. I haven’t seen any court opinion addressing that to the contrary, including the one you quote. Secondly, I don’t know if I completely agree that the universally best approach really is for teachers to completely leave their political opinions out of the classroom – coming from both my experience as a student and in some one-on-one teaching experiences I’ve had in my higher education, and from my mom’s experience as a high school history and government teacher. When my mom started out, she followed the same approach; never let her students know where she stood, and try to be as unbiased as possible. But in fact, no one can be truly unbiased, and I was often served pretty poorly by teachers who tried to be “unbiased” but were incapable of doing so. Mostly, it just turned out that the “unbiased” veneer they gave us made their biases more insidious and harder to detect. (For example, I had a history teacher in high school who apparently was considering using lessons from the John Birch Society until the other teachers in the dept. stopped him, because he wasn’t smart enough to realize how biased a source that was.)

      So instead my mom takes the approach – and I have when my students have asked me about politics (which comes up occasionally, even though my area of specialty is music) – to put all her cards on the table so to speak, and make it clear to her students that’s where she’s coming from so they can evaluate her claims accordingly. (And she says something specifically to the effect of “Well, I’m saying this as a liberal, so take what I say with a grain of salt” and gives them exposure to what the other side would say.) I’d much rather have a teacher who is an admitted liberal/conservative/whatever so I can evaluate that, than someone who presents something that is definitely not as “unbiased.”

      I’m not saying that the approach you’re taking is wrong – I’m sure you are much better at hiding your opinions than my teachers were, for one – but rather that I don’t think it’s the only right approach, nor do I think that even the most liberal (in the non-political sense of the word) understanding of the First Amendment would say that it’s a violation of students’ free speech rights for their teachers to make their political opinions known to them. (I do completely agree with you when it comes to teachers making religious (or anti-religious) statements, and that clearly does violate the First Amendment. But politics are different from religion, and that being said, it still bothers me how some schools choose to apply that toward the teaching of evolution, a basic building block of various sciences – especially biology – that needs to be understood for students to go further in the discipline.)

      Lastly, given the particular “political opinion” that we’re discussing here, I think it’s worth noting that advocating for gay equality isn’t really the same as other political issues. Teachers absolutely should be trying to make their classrooms as safe as possible for all students regardless of sexual orientation, and you can’t do that by treating homophobia as an equal viewpoint (including homophobic policies) or even just not addressing it. Just as we don’t give “equal time” to racism or sexism in discussions of the civil rights or feminist movements.

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        Thanks for your thorough response. As you might imagine, the atheist community has, likewise, experienced teachers being ousted for expressing their beliefs openly (including in the school district where I teach).

        Still, I have to point out that the Tinker decision dealt purely with students’ rights. Justices can write about anything they want about their broader feelings (like the quote in the original article), but the precedence is limited to the scope of the case. There are plenty of precedents that outline what teachers must not do in their official capacity as teachers (i.e., lead a prayer with students in school). Likewise, in the worst case scenario, a teacher running a diversity club could run afoul of the first amendment by telling students that some of their fundamentalist religious views about the LGBT community are backwards (depending on how it is said). Tinker did not give teachers the same freedom of speech in the classroom as outside of the school and many other precedents say just the opposite (i.e. students may lead a prayer by a flag pole in the morning, a teacher will get fired for doing so). We don’t have the same rights because we are representatives of the state as teachers and they are a captive citizen audience.

        I see it as a good thing that teachers must respect students/parents freedom of religion over their own freedom of speech. Otherwise, there would be nothing to keep teachers in more religious communities from proselytizing to their students. Yes, I take this to a degree past what is legally necessary in that I don’t want to bias my students with knowing my personal views at all, and I think a teacher needs to train their students to think critically for themselves and the rest will take care of itself. Still, there is a legal barrier that stops teachers from telling students what to think, particularly with regard to religious views.

        The other things I think of regarding the “Full Story” is that there are many peripheral issues that can land a teacher in hot water. When the choir teacher got in trouble for playing “Same Love” I was outraged at the school district. Then I looked a little deeper and, after taking the word of reporters and the teacher that the song did not violate other school rules, I listened to the song myself and was shocked she was so careless. The language in that song, regardless of the song’s topic, should be enough to get a teacher in a great deal of trouble. I can only play a song with profanity like that in my class if I get the approval of my administrator and give my students’ parents a chance to opt their child out of listening to it. The bottom line is that the district in that case was lambasted as homophobic when what really happened was that a teacher played a song with profane lyrics without going through her schools proper procedures. That’s what I mean by the “whole story”.

        I agree that teachers are not violating the first amendment by sharing their political affiliation in general, although I take pride in the fact that most of my students cannot tell my position on issues. I truly believe in being able to argue any side of an issue (even when it is wrongheaded), which I usually do in the form of questions or, “but you know the counter to your point is…” That way my students have freedom of conscience but I can be sure that they are informed. Even my enlightened liberal students typically do not know well why they believe what they believe and it’s healthy for them to gain an understanding of conservative viewpoints. Keep in mind, I don’t give “equal time” or “equal respect” to viewpoints that are demonstrably and factually wrong. A religious evolution denier should simply be told, “I’m sorry, but this is not an appropriate discussion for a science class.”

        I also agree that sexual orientation is not the same as other political views or religious discrimination. I can, however, imagine scenarios in which a homophobic fundamentalist religious student might get into an argument with a teacher about their views on sexual orientation and it would be possible to overstep as a teacher regarding that student’s religious views.

        There is certainly nothing wrong with a club that promotes tolerance or a teacher who is openly gay. I’m just not convinced yet, particularly after the “Same Love” story, that we have the whole story about what brought about the firing.

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