Freedom Of Expression In The Classroom

This morning, the Alberta Court of Appeal will hear arguments on the Pridgen case. As discussed in yesterday's post, Pridgen rests on the issue of freedom of expression on campus and whether non-academic misconduct resulting from Facebook postings criticising an University professor was a justifiable restriction under the Charter. If, however, we tweak the case and re-imagine it, we come up with a different, yet related, freedom of expression dilemma: the expressive rights of teachers in a classroom.

The discussion will not refer to Keegstra or Ross, who through their expression promoted discrimination and hatred. Instead, the discussion will be about Mr. Morin, an untenured and untested teacher at a Prince Edward Island Junior High School. Mr. Morin's first year of teaching goes by smoothly and uneventfully and he is contracted to teach again. His second year, however, is much more controversial.

One evening, Mr. Morin watches a PBS documentary entitled "Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done" and he is devastated. The raw documentary exposes the corrupt side of the fundamental Christian movement of the late 80s and its connection to American politics. Much of the documentary focuses on the scandal-ridden Jimmy Bakker, his wife Tammy Faye, and the PTL Church.

Mr. Morin sees a teaching opportunity in the documentary and decides to show the film to his grade 9 class in connection to a writing assignment on "What Religion Means To Different People." After the viewing of the documentary in class, the Principal receives complaints and directs Mr. Morin to stop the assignment. Mr. Morin will take his right to express himself in the classroom all the way to the highest Appeal Court in his province, and he will do it on his own and without the benefit of counsel.

The PEISCAD (PEI Appeal Court) agreed with Mr. Morin, although not unanimously. The majority of the Court, found expressive content in Morin's assignment, consistent with the Supreme Court of Canada's liberal interpretation of the freedom of expression under the Charter. Moreover, the right involves not only the teacher, who is expressing viewpoints in an effort to exchange and stimulate "opinions and ideas," but involves the students' right

in a democratic society to have access to free expression by their teachers - encouraging diversity, critical thinking, and vigorous debate ... students have a right to hear this expression and benefit from it...this right of students is fundamental to their being citizens in a truly democratic state and students of that states' educational system.

The right of a teacher, therefore, to express himself transcends the classroom and is elevated, thereby becoming a core concept of our society's fundamental values as reflected and protected by the Charter.

As we grow older and look back on our education, we recall those teachers who taught us without fear or prejudice. Thank you, Mr. Morin for reminding us.