That N.J. Teacher and the Politics of Hate Speech

Can free speech ever been taken too far?

Screen capture from Facebook

Last week, Viki Knox, a 49-year-old special education teacher at a public high school in Union Township, N.J., got a failing grade after making some very nasty, very public remarks on Facebook. Knox, a 20-year veteran educator, criticized her high school’s display celebrating LGBT History Month. Not only did she say that homosexuality was “perverted,” but she also called it a “sin” that “breeds like cancer.”

“Why parade your unnatural immoral behaviors before the rest of us?” she wrote. “I do not have to tolerate anything others wish to do. That’s what I teach and preach.”

Well, guess what? No one has to tolerate this hate speech either. Sure, she has a right to say it. But she doesn’t have the right to keep her job after saying it.

The comments may have since been removed, but there’s been quite a backlash in Union Township and beyond ever since, calling for her immediate dismissal. Union Chief School Administrator Patrick Martin said the district is investigating the comments, but would not provide any information about Knox or whether any action has been taken – yet.

As someone who values free speech – including speech as vulgar and insipid as this – it can’t be denied that Knox and other hate mongers like her have the right to say what’s on their mind. But in doing so, there can and should be consequences – especially if you consider that this teacher’s words directly endanger her students. And in the public education system, nothing can be more dangerous than perpetuating ignorance in an atmosphere that should rely on learning and enlightenment.

That’s why a teacher like Knox does not belong in a classroom.

For better or worse, teachers are charged with an incredible responsibility – one that can change the way young minds think. But when Knox expressed her homophobic opinions in such a public forum, one that high school students freely use – opinions about the school that pays her salary and opinions about many of the students she leads – she forfeited her right to be a teacher. If the school district doesn’t censure Knox, it leaves the door wide open for others to abuse their authority.

And as we rally against bullying and the sometimes lacking support and response system in schools today, we also need to do more than simply eliminate teachers like Knox who make the problem worse. How much better to equip teachers and administrators with the tools needed to prevent hate speech from infiltrating the classroom in the first place?

In New Jersey, thankfully, there are laws that prohibit cyber bullying. And while free speech is one of the most important virtues worth fighting for in this country, the words Knox so freely espoused can do a lot of damage to the lives of young LGBT students in her own school who must already deal with bullying, homophobia and hate each day from their peers. The last thing they need is to hear the same ignorant statements from teachers.

If Knox threatened a student with a weapon, there would be no question about her termination. When will we start acknowledging that words can have just as much power?

On Oct. 18 (6:30 p.m.) Garden State Equality is protesting the school board meeting at the Union Township School (2350 N. Third St., in Union Township, N.J.). Families, students and other concerned taxpayers are encouraged to join them.