Issue 72, Winter 1998/1999
Three rulings this year have ominous implications nationwide for academic freedom, creative teaching, and learning. High school teacher Cissy Lacks was fired by a St. Louis suburban school district in 1995, allegedly for violating the student code prohibiting profanity, by allowing her students’ writing to reflect their own experiences and concerns in drama and poetry classes. She sued the district for violating her First Amendment rights and won an award of $750,000. The school district appealed the decision which was overturned by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in June (Censorship News 70, 64).
The setback comes on top of a Colorado Supreme Court decision upholding the firing of teacher Al Wilder for showing the acclaimed Bertolucci anti-fascist film, 1900, to high school seniors, and a decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which rejected a North Carolina teacher’s claim that she was wrongfully disciplined over a controversial but award-winning student production.
Cissy Lacks, a successful teacher with 25 years’ experience and a best teacher award, has now petitioned the Supreme Court. On learning of her plans, a former student advised her to tell the Court how her teaching opened his life to learning. Here are excerpts from his letter:
“…There is a difference in society and school students today…You or your generation couldn t imagine the pain we as students go through after and before and yes during school…I mean there is no way for us to just put our harsh reality or our violent and cruel society in our lockers till after school.
“…when a student walks in your classroom you have no idea what he or she has gone through before that moment. And in an assignment if a student uses a profane word to explain their situation is it ignorance or a[n] outcry? Now the classroom teacher … is faced with the question scold or hold? I ve seen you teach and it[‘]s as if you receive joy when a student tunes in and opens his arms and embraces knowledge… few people care enough to look past the hard shell and see the potential of a pretty bird inside…you look past the wrong and show us students the beauty we possess inside and us knowing or learning is your reward.
“Sometimes we get so wrapped up in law that we forget what this whole battle is about … education I mean…. And no judge or jury would deny you what you deserve, your job back…Your friend Reginald…”