Great teacher + inappropriate web site?

By anyone’s measure, Mike Pearce appears
to be a phenomenal history teacher. His Ellison High
School
students in Killeen, Texas had a 99% passing rate on the state
history assessment this year. Part of his success is due to the incredible
wealth of self-created electronic resources that he employs in his classes. You
can see many of them on his web site, www.ushistorynut.com, including
multimedia PowerPoint presentations that have been featured in his local newspaper
and the ASCD Smartbrief e-mail newsletter:

Ushistorynut00

As an educator and technology advocate, I wish there were more teachers like
Mr. Pearce.

As a school law guy, however, I’m also troubled by his web site because it
has a hyperlink to one pro-life web site, LifeNews.com, and has banner ads that link
to another, lovematters.com (click on
screenshot thumbnails for larger images):

Ushistorynut03_2

Ushistorynut04

This probably would be fine if his web
site
had no connection to his school. But the site has notes to
students, links to his school and district, a hyperlink for parents to sign up
for his e-mail list, information for parents like his late homework policy and
school supply requests, the district calendar, his district e-mail address, etc.
He’s very clearly using his site for pedagogical purposes, not just for
marketing of his PowerPoint presentations. And therein lies the problem because
his school and his district have a legal obligation to be politically and
religiously neutral.

Mr. Pearce does have a disclaimer way down at the bottom of his very lengthy
home page:

Disclaimer:  This page was designed solely by Mr. Pearce at his own
expense and was neither approved nor sanctioned by the Killeen Independent
School District.  The content of Mr. Pearce’s site or webpages linked from his
site does not necessarily reflect the views of the Killeen Independent School
District.

He also appears to be trying to be politically neutral. For example, his home
page links to many different political parties, news sources, and news
columnists. But nowhere does he seem to have any pro-choice links or ads, nor
does he have any explanation of why he has chosen to feature one side of this
political / religious / personal issue.

I have never met Mr. Pearce. All evidence points to him being an amazing
teacher. But I’m not sure his
disclaimer and the fact that it’s his
personal web site
are enough to survive deep legal scrutiny, particularly as the publicity for what’s he’s doing increases. People are going to logically associate his web site with his school and school
district, neither of which could ever get away with links and banner ads for
pro-life web sites [as an aside, I’m not sure they could get away with links to
the various commercial entities featured on his site either].

I’ve blogged before about the
difficult issues related to school districts allowing and monitoring teachers’
use of off-campus web sites for pedagogical purposes
. I think Mr. Pearce’s
site illustrates the challenging questions that I raised in that post. In this
case, I think that he either needs to take his site down, remove all connections
to his school system, or remove the pro-life aspects. I don’t think he can have
it all and still pass constitutional muster.

I’m willing to admit that maybe I’m going overboard here, so I’m asking a few
school law folks to lend their opinion on this, including Pamela Parker at Texas Teacher Law and Mike Tully at
the West Regional Equity Network.
I also have invited Mr. Pearce to tell us more about his site and whether he has received any complaints about the pro-life aspects of the site. Hopefully they
(and you) will have some time to lend some insights into this complex
issue.

21 Responses to “Great teacher + inappropriate web site?”

  1. Oops – meant to say in point 4 that I’m not sure his pro-choice links are legal (not illegal). Sorry about that.

  2. Update: Scott, I don’t take my school law class until this summer. At that time, I may very well have a different answer, although my personal opinion would be the same. But school law isn’t about my personal opinion, it’s about what will hold up in a court of law.

  3. This is a close call. The issue is whether the web site might give the impression that the school district stands behind what are apparently only the personal opinions of Mr. Pearce. While the Constitutional issues are complex, Mr. Pearce might have to be more concerned about local district policies (which are based on Texas law). For example, while Policy DG states that “District employees do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” it adds, “neither an employee nor anyone else has an absolute constitutional right to use all parts of a school building or its immediate environs for unlimited expressive purposes.” One could argue that use of the district’s name, image, and teaching position might run afoul of this language.

    There is also the concern that Mr. Pearce’s website might “result in any political or social pressure being placed on students, parents, or staff.” I can imagine that a discussion of Roe v Wade in Mr. Pearce’s classroom would suffer a chilling effect if the students were aware of his web site.

    I also find it a bit unprofessional to include unrelated political links in what is basically a pedagogical website. Mr. Pearce, in my view, would be wise to separate the two. After all, websites aren’t all that expensive.

    JMT

  4. Scott, thanks for a great post. It gives me a chance to remind folks that technology is just a new tool for doing the same old things. It is often kind of complicated to figure out, though. My opinion is that this website would have some constitutional problems, and I’ll tell you why I think that.

    Here we have a teacher who is using a personal website to do some school related things. Let’s assume that he does not use any school equipment to create the site. Let’s also assume that the material he posts is clearly supplementary to the “official” classroom materials. And let’s also assume, just for fun, that he tells kids they can go to the site, but they don’t have to.

    Public school teachers do not have an absolute right to determine the materials and curriculum used in their classrooms. That right belongs to the district, and so at a minimum the supplementary materials being posted by the teacher are subject to any district or campus guidelines that may exist. If there are no written guidelines, the administration can still intervene and disapprove of specific supplementary materials.

    But here we have another piece – in addition to the supplementary materials, the teacher is expressing a religious viewpoint. Teachers can do so in some circumstances, but the courts will look at factors such as whether the expression was clearly noted as a personal one, was it contextually related to the subject matter being discussed, was it expressed in a way appropriate to the age of the students, and was it in any way coercive?

    Here the students have to encounter the viewpoint, which seems to be unrelated to any class subject matter, in order to get to at elast some information for the class (extra credit projects).

    Now what about the fact that he does this at home on his own time with his own equipment? It’s irrelevant, if he’s using it as part of his class (after all, don’t teachers use their own money and time at home to create classroom materials all the time?).

    A couple of commenters have suggested that he should clearly delineate between school-related content and personal content, and I agree. If he is using his position as teacher, then he is subject to district policy and constitutional guidelines. He’s basically doing part of his teaching from home – an okay thing, but as long as it is teaching on behalf of his employing school district, then he must act like an employee. That is, he’s bound by the same rules on the internet that he is bound by in the physical space of the classroom, as long as he is cloaking himself with the mantle of “district teacher.” If he’s doing something truly outside the job he is employed to do, then that needs to be clear not just in words but in reality.

    A word about his disclaimer: it does only what it says it does. It makes clear that Killeen ISD did not sanction the website. However, that does NOT mean that Killeen ISD could not step in and tell him to make changes or else, just as they could do with a bulletin board he created in his classroom. As long as the website is related to his job with Killeen ISD by providing specific material for his classes, then Killeen ISD has an interest in it. And as long as the website is being used as a communication tool specifically for his own students – whether or not he also uses it for other things – then he is bound by the same guidelines he is bound by when he standing in his classroom.

    The website is no more than a souped up memo to parents and students. It does not have a totally different character simply because it is being prepared on a useful new technology.

  5. So my question is, if he did not have supplementary materials for his class, and was not directing his students/parents to the site would the links be okay? What if he said, I’m a teacher in Killeen ISD, and I think abortion is wrong, etc. in a blog like this one? I’m thinking it would be okay, but you know what they say about assuming.

  6. As a parent….I have to say ask, What happened to personal responsibility? Why not just ignore the link and move on with your life? If he had 50 links on the site and I disagreed with one link, I could a)not use the site b)discuss with my HIGH SCHOOL AGE CHILD about my beliefs and let them use the site or c)just not click on that link.

    I don’t agree with everything that is taught in the KISD but I don’t force the world to revolve around me. I use the options I have to live my life without forcing MY beliefs on someone else. He isn’t requiring students to read or test on that site so I think that this is a big overreaction.

    If it was a link to a pro-gay website, I would have the SAME options. At some point we have to use our own ability to NOT partciipate in what we don’t agree with.

  7. Dana, that’s cool, but the U.S. Supreme Court disagrees with you. Sorry.

  8. Yes, Scott…and with all due respect…you’re going a bit overboard here. If I create my own website for personal/professional use, and I invite students/parents to peruse it for supplementary educational purposes, I don’t believe there’s a requirement to remain politically/religiously neutral. People aren’t going to necessarily associate that website with the school. The school links, late work policy, etc… can be found elsewhere, and this teacher just uses his site as a convenient one-stop information center.

    But the courts may disagree with me, and at the end of the day that’s the opinion that counts. :-) I believe that this current supreme court would uphold such a ruling.

  9. This will be interesting to watch. My first instinct, as an administrator, is that it’s a problem. If he’s using the website with his students, in class, and he’s writing it as Mr. Pearce, the teacher, with his students as the audience of his website, it’s the same as printing that at the bottom of his tests or any other teacher developed student project. It’s not unlike hanging those signs in his classroom. I’m about as liberal of a principal as I know and I would find it problematic if one of my teachers were doing it. Definitely worth a call to my school attorney for advice.

  10. I love it! Two administrator types, two completely opposite answers. Welcome to the wonderful world of school law! Hey, Rick, ask your school law prof what he/she thinks! Kim, if you can ask your district attorney without incurring any costs, do the same!

    Anyone else got a thought about this sticky wicket?

  11. If I saw that one of my district’s teachers was doing this, I would bring it up to the building level administrator as well as a whole slew of central office admin-types (including the superintendent). While I could just block the website from access at school, I think that would be counterproductive to the overall goal of teaching and learning.

    I would think that since he is using the website for teaching and learning that it would need to adhere to certain legal standards. Texas Administrative Code does state that “The educator shall not use institutional or professional privileges for personal or partisan advantage” and “The educator shall comply with state regulations, written local school board policies, and other applicable state and federal laws.” (http://www.sbec.state.tx.us). By having those items on his web page he opens himself up to possible ethics complaints. I’m not saying that they would be viable complaints, that would be up to someone from the State Board for Educator Certification to decide – but why open yourself up to something like that?

  12. Interesting questions.

    At a glance, it does seem like the website has three loosely related elements. The first is the commercial presentation of the PowerPoints, which look incredibly detailed. The second is the classroom-related content; a part of the site seems clearly connected to his students, their parents, and classwork. The third element is the large number of banner ads and political links.

    If it were me, I would break the website into two separate sites. I would put all school-related matters on a school-related site, and put the PowerPoints and ads on a separate site. Speaking purely from an ethical standpoint as a teacher, I would feel uncomfortable with exposing students to a personal political agenda, or combining a school-related site with a business venture.

  13. What’s the source of the idea that a public employee maintaining a personal website is legally required to maintain some sort of equal-link policy? It seems to be based on little more than a pile of someone-might-thinks and i’m-not-sures.

    There’s a Constitutional obligation for the school to be neutral regarding questions of religion and an obligation to avoid partisan politics (e.g. advocacy of a political party) in the educational curriculum, but no one here has provided any basis for a legal obligation that teachers maintain “neutrality” regarding public issues generally. Opposition to or support for legal abortion are controversial positions, but neither constitutes partisan politics nor religious advocacy — members of different political parties and divergent religious or irreligious backgrounds come to a variety of different conclusions regarding abortion and life issues.

    History, civics and economics curricula take sides (usually majoritarian or elite-consensus sides, but sides nonetheless) regarding debatable and sometimes value-laden issues all the time. Why would there be more stringent neutrality requirements for a private website, given the attenuated connection to the school and the background principle that teachers have a First Amendment right to speak on matters of public concern?

  14. Response to "Great teacher + inappropriate web site?" Reply June 1, 2007 at 9:15 am

    Some nut want’s to blast Mike Pearce’s near perfect web site that incontestably does a brilliant job of educating students in “history.” Why? Because the web site also has a hyperlink to LifeNews.com, a pro-life web site and another to lovematters.com, a Christian web site. No doubt this objector would have no problems if Pearce instead had hyperlinks to all the available abortion clinics and gay web sites. For guys like him education has to be “secular progressive.” Morality is incompatible to education for slugs like this guy. I know, I’ve seen their type before. They’re trying to take over our schools and education itself nationwide. Their like the creeps you recently heard about on the national news that went to Boulder High School in Boulder, Colorado. They had a “mandatory” assembly where they taught students that it was (1) normal to experiment with gay sex, (2) that sexual promiscuity was good, (3) that condoms are cumbersome and can make you lose your erection, and it was fine not to use them, (4) that casual drug use is normal and, (5) they wished they had some drugs to share with them. They were invited back by the principal, superintendent, and school board to do it again next year. The secular progressive citizens of Boulder, Colorado seem to be just fine with their own children being taught this. This nut is probably just like them. Guys like him, and them, are offensive to the very ideal of decency itself.

    If this nut has a legal concern he need only look at the first amendment. If students are not interested they don’t have to click on the link. If they opt to click that link, by choice, at least what they will read is both “educational” and “moral” as opposed to filthy and repugnant stuff this writer probably would prefer they see or at least nor find objectionable.

    Message to the nut case that wrote that comment: Mike Pearce’s web site itself is purely about history and nothing else. Do you get it now or are you so thick that you can’t comprehend that?

    Way to go Mike Pearce. Thank God we still have a few good, decent, God fearing, and moral master teachers like you. Pay no attention to worthless punks like him.

  15. My guess is that much will depend on how this site is used with students. If it is used in class and students need to access it as part of their role as a student, it is my impression that the advertisements and links would be out of balance and could appear to give the impression that a teacher is not providing a balanced view of a particular topic.

    If the site is a completely optional and separate item and is not required for use, it is much more likely, in my personal and non-legal opinion, to be protected under the First Amendment.

  16. I’m trying to separate my personal opinion on these issues from the role of a teacher, but it’s not easy.

    I look at it from the point of view of a parent. If my son was in Mr. Pearce’s class, I know he would disagree pretty strongly with some of Mr. Pearce’s positions. That being said, if Mr. Pearce was willing to have an open debate with my son and judge him on the quality of his arguments rather than on his personal beliefs, then I don’t think that I (or my son) would have a problem with it. Teachers are people, and while they have an obligation to fairness and respect I’m not sure they have to pretend to be completely neutral on important issues. I think high school students are sophisticated enough to understand the distinction (if the schools are).

    If the school and Mr. Pearce would accept my son posting a web site with alternative links and let him publicize it to other students on the campus and not try to punish him for doing it, then I would support this kind of open debate. I don’t know what the law in Texas says, but that’s how I would see it as a parent. If on the other hand, the teacher and the school would assert the privilege to present their views over my son’s, then I have a problem with it.

    By the way, if the anonymous poster has a link to info on the presentation he describes at Boulder, I’d be interested to know more about it.

  17. Michael, here’s a link:

    http://tinyurl.com/3ytpeq

    You can read the summary, view the transcript, and listen to excerpts of the session.

  18. I have to agree with Kimberly. There is no need for the ads except to push a personal agenda. This is the same as putting pro life ads on classroom worksheets. It would be one thing if they were ads on a website that the teacher was visiting, but did not create. It is a whole different ballgame when the teacher knowingly created the website and invited those ads knowing that his students would be exposed to them. Non-Christian students are put in an unfortunate situation to feel that their teacher is pushing his agenda on them, intended or not. It is not necessary to have them and therefore the responsible thing would be to get rid of them.

  19. If this was Pearce’s personal blog, a reflection blog, or a place where he was talking to the general public, etc. I would have no problem with this and I would defend his right to say his piece, but even if the educational material may be supplemental this is not an acceptable division of his professional and private online life, and those ads are not acceptable (and Brian’s post points out why it violates state ethics guidelines). Basically, anyone in his class who needs supplemental materials will have to read these banners, etc. It’s not required reading, but I just don’t think it’s enough distance.

    Question–many of us keep two blogs, one for the class, and a professional reflection/journal blog. If we aren’t linking or sending parents and students to our reflection blogs, can we express our personal and political philosophies? What is the line?

  20. Wow! This guy is confused!

    Pearce is a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, a Green Party member, a Communist, a Constitution Party member, and a Reform Party member. On top of that, he listens to or reads Sean Hannity, Air America, Drudge, Moveon.org, World Net Daily, and the Daily Kos. He watches FoxNews, CNN, MSNBC, and NPR… and you single out his obvious lack of a commitment to ideological diversity because there are no NARAL or Planned Parenthood links? That tells me a lot more about your agenda than his. I say he should put a NAMBLA link next to link where parents can find sex offenders in their area (on his “parent info” page).

    Or maybe Pearce is looking to expose his students to a plethora of info they can “choose” to link to… quite frankly, Scott, if you want them to see “pro-choice” rants, he actually has some liberal links on there that would provide that blessed info.

  21. Mary, four things:

    1. First of all, thank you for your comment on my blog. I always appreciate it when people join the conversation.

    2. I don’t believe that Mr. Pearce is professing that he belongs to all those parties or that he listens to / reads all those sites. But maybe he does. I don’t know.

    3. As I said in my original post, I do think he’s trying in some places on his web site to be politically neutral. But he’s not on the pro-life issue. Unlike his news sources, political party links, etc., this is the one issue that doesn’t have a countervailing set of links. That’s why it caught my eye.

    4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I never said that I wanted him to post ‘pro-choice rants;’ those are your words, not mine. What I said was that from a legal standpoint I’m not sure (but am open to admit that I’m incorrect) that his pro-choice links are illegal under current judicial precedent. I don’t believe I inserted my personal opinions in there at all. Please don’t do that for me. Thanks.

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