June 23, 2008

Principal Michael Sirios
Fort Herriman Middle School
14058 South Mirabella Drive
Herriman, Utah 84096

Barry L. Newbold, Ed.D., Superintendent
Jordan School District
9361 S. 300 East
Sandy, UT 84070

Dear Superintendent Newbold and Principal Sirios,

We write regarding complaints about a middle school health teacher who apparently responded to students’ questions in a sex education class about homosexuality, masturbation and oral sex.  We understand some parents have called for her termination and that in response the district has put her on paid-administrative leave while conducting an investigation.  

Even if the facts alleged are true, it cannot be a punishable offense for a teacher to answer students’ questions that are relevant to the subject area of the course. Moreover, a school policy to deny students access to accurate health information because of objections based on religious or moral beliefs, would raise serious First Amendment concerns.

Without questioning the sincerity of those who object to the content discussed in the health class, their views are not shared by all, and they have no right to impose those views on others or to demand that the educational program reflect their personal preferences.  Efforts to impose particular viewpoints about sex — and to prohibit discussion of controversial information or ideas — constitute a particularly dangerous form of censorship.  Trying to "protect" young people from the facts about sex denies them access to potentially life-saving information and precludes informed discussion about a critical aspect of life.

Furthermore, disciplining a teacher for addressing material within the scope of the subject of the class creates a chilling effect on classroom discussion and learning.  Such an environment impels teachers to avoid or ignore difficult student questions and to censor any material to which even a single parent might object.  Silencing class discussion on the basis of particular, ideologically-based views casts a “pall of orthodoxy” over the school, Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589, 603 (1967), and is destructive of First Amendment principles and informed, open dialogue.  It is the role of public education institutions to serve as models for the kind of informed and respectful debate that is essential in a democracy.  Such a debate is impossible if teachers fear a possible dismissal every time they address controversial material.

Students should be encouraged to seek information from reliable and informed sources, like their teachers.  By penalizing the teacher in this case, you not only discourage them from doing so, but also increase the likelihood that they will turn to inaccurate sources and rely on gossip and uninformed hearsay from their peers.  The consequences of acting on misinformation about sexual health can be severe, even life-threatening.

We strongly urge you to adopt practices and policies that respect your students’ right to uncensored information and discussion in their classrooms, and that you resist the urge to appease critics by sacrificing a teacher who was only doing her job.    

If we can be of assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to call us.

Joan Bertin
Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship