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Editorial: Teacher flunks free-speech test

North Rowan High School teacher Tanya Dixon-Neely has rightfully been suspended from her job after forbidding a student to criticize President Obama — a fact brought to light after the student posted a video of it on YouTube.
“Video” is misleading, because all the viewer sees is the ceiling of the classroom. But the audio portion reveals much more. For someone who teaches social studies, among other things, the teacher shows disturbing ignorance of the right of free speech. She loudly insists that a student could be arrested for speaking ill of President Obama. For a supposedly responsible adult, she shows a complete lack of emotional maturity in dealing with a student who challenges both her knowledge and her authority.
In the end, she shows little of either.
“Listen, let me tell you something,” the teacher says to the student after some back and forth, “you will not disrespect the president of the United States in this classroom.”
The student, senior Hunter Rogers, replies that he’ll say what he wants.
“Not about him you won’t,” the teacher says.
Faster than a teenager can roll his eyes, this ill-informed conversation made its way onto YouTube and beyond, thanks to coverage by media ranging from the Drudge Report to Fox News. A person could spin the story any number of ways: proof of teacher incompetence, political favoritism, ignorance of constitutional rights. It’s not clear in words if the teacher is defending the presidency or Obama, but her passion on the subject suggests a personal loyalty. That political spin will get the most air time — more evidence, commentators will say, of mindless loyalty to Obama from people who don’t have all the facts.
Ms. Neely-Dixon has not been available for comment so far. The fact that her suspension comes with pay suggests an investigation into the incident is ongoing, and her days in the classroom may be numbered. If the behavior evident in this video is typical, her teaching days should be numbered. There may be mitigating factors — a strong record; an antagonistic student; a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. But it would take a lot to outweigh the damage the video has done. This will test the Rowan-Salisbury schools’ standards.
The school system has handled the controversy about as well as it could so far by turning it into a teaching moment, pun intended. Teachers should control their emotions, act professional and keep their politics out of the classroom. And they should certainly be familiar with the First Amendment.
As police officers and celebrities can attest, everyone is a member of the paparazzi these days. Mobile phones that take photographs, shoot video and access the Internet can instantly broadcast an embarrassing slip-up. They can also bring persistent wrongs to light. We don’t know enough about this teacher to determine whether this incident is a momentary lapse or a part of a pattern. But what we do know — what we have heard — is inexcusable.

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