UFT did not ban its members from wearing pro-NYPD t-shirts

Sep 9, 2014 by

The UFT did not ban its members from wearing pro-NYPD t-shirts. It has neither the authority nor the desire to do so. The union didn’t “growl” and its members weren’t bullied.

And it’s a lie that the union threatened retaliation against its members. It cautioned them about potential reprisals from rogue Department of Education supervisors.

The union did its duty by giving a “heads up.”

Teachers have been punished for expressing personal opinions about almost anything. It used to be that only political or religious messages were controversial. Times have changed. People are touchy. You never can predict what will fire them up or what they will do. This is true of principals, but also of students, parents and colleagues. And Mayor DeBlasio saying “Every individual in our society has the right to make their own decision about how they want to express themselves,” is obviously not an enacted policy.

There is no longer a bar for the merits of an adverse personnel action to meet. Just cause is whatever the principal or other supervisor in charge says it is. They hold power so whatever they do passes muster. The school leaders have the Office of Labor Relations hotline and there is a teacher-buster line that invites the public.

The union may not be as cynical as I am but they are smartly skeptical.

A teacher could be disciplined for wearing a “Peace on Earth”-themed twill cap or for failing to comply with an order to take off a pink ribbon symbolizing the fight against breast cancer. Ridiculous, but stranger things have happened.

And if a principal gave such an idiotic order on the pretext that they considered the message inflammatory or perhaps too poignant, the Department of Education would back the principal. Behind the scenes they might not agree with her but they would on the record unequivocally endorse her right to make that determination.

Any private view expressed by teachers publicly can be turned around and used against them.  Not just hate speech. Mainstream will do. It can be in the classroom, overheard in the hallway, heard under a toilet stall or advertized on a t-shirt That’s true whether you are supporting cops or advocating revolution in the streets.

Whether you are raising the alarm about global warming or advocating revolution in the streets, it hardly matters whether the cause is worthy or damnable.

A cry to feed the homeless, emblazoned on a sweater, can be called inflammatory if the principal has an unrelated grudge against the owner of the voice. All the principal need to do, in the DOE’s own words, is claim it “distracts or disrupts learning.” And “report any inappropriate apparel to the chancellor.”

One person’s “inappropriate” is another person’s “perfectly befitting.”

Of course it shouldn’t be necessary to counsel vigilance in the wearing of a pro-police shirt.  But that’s reality, friends.

Free speech has become a can of worms. And supervisors have sole possession of the key.

That’s where the danger lies.

Teachers who speak up are often walking on thin ice. Don’t get mad at their union for posting warning signs.

Chancellor Farina says “Common sense trumps all. This is one issue principals should decide on a school-by-school basis.”  But what’s the recourse when the authority of principals is allowed to trump common sense?

I trust Farina. She doesn’t have the malevolent swagger or blood-lust of chancellors Klein and Walcott.

But I’m not sure I trust all principals with the dictionary.  Because no definition is more elusive and nothing is rarer than “common sense.” Gone are the days when “if it walks like a duck…”

The DOE’s regulations, like its definitions, are often deliberately vague and elastic so they can be enforced capriciously and applied selectively, inconsistently and sometimes for other than the stated reasons.Principals rule on free speech issues in their school and regardless of how arbitrary, they are never overturned.

That’s why teachers must watch their step. It’s not paranoia. It’s self-defense.

The Chancellor said she didn’t tell anyone not to wear a NYPD shirt. She’s a good sport and probably wouldn’t have objected even had she known in advance.

But that’s not the point. And neither is the fact that most teachers, like the general population, are fans of the police.

The DOE’s recent history of not giving teachers any benefit of any doubt when allegations are lodged against them, makes these prospective targets constantly look over their shoulder. When they take any kind of stand at all on any issue whatsoever, they need to be at least prudently cautioned of any pitfalls that may arise.

That’s what the union did.

Out of a higher obligation to its members than merely the ethic born of dues money.

Ron Isaac

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