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Thursday, April 15, 2010

NC School Teacher Suspended over Facebook Postings; Freedoms of Speech, Religion Collide

These days, it's hard to tell what is more "in" - having your very personal photos and videos broadcast across the internet or getting into trouble over what you and others put on your Facebook and other social media pages. Melissa Hussain of Wake County, North Carolina chose the Facebook route.

Melissa Hussain was teaching 8th grade science at West Lake Middle School in Apex, North Carolina, where she started teaching in 2006. It recently came to light that, last December, a student anonymously left a Bible on her desk, reportedly with a note which said "Merry Christmas", with the "Christ" portion bolded and underlined. Supposedly, someone anonymously left a photo of Jesus on Ms. Hussain's desk, which she threw away. On other occasions, students read the Bible in her classroom, wore Jesus t-shirts, and sang "Jesus Loves Me".  Parents of students in the class said that Ms. Hussain sent students to the office when they asked about the role of God in the creation process during a lesson about evolution.

On her Facebook page, Ms. Hussain wrote that the bible incident amounted to a "hate crime" and that she wouldn't let it go unpunished. She couldn't "believe the cruelty and ignorance of people sometimes" and complained that her students were spreading rumors that she's a "Jesus hater".  Facebook friends of Ms. Hussain's commented regarding "ignorant southern rednecks" and someone suggested that she respond by bringing a picture of popular race car driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. to class with a swastika drawn on his forehead. To this, Ms. Hussain responded that, while she liked the idea, carrying through with it would cause her to lose her job.  She has since adjusted the settings on her Facebook page to make it more private.

Ms. Hussain's suspension - with pay - while the situation is investigated  is largely based on the Wake County School District's code of ethics which states that employees conduct "should be such as to protect both the person's integrity and/or the reputation and that of the school system".

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We don't know what Ms. Hussain's religious preferences, if any, are - and that probably doesn't matter, other than the fact that her apparently not being Christian is center to this series of events. It sounds like some of the kids in her class were using religion as a way to taunt her, which is regrettable, especially since they were using the freedoms of religion and speech as both swords and shields to do so. On the other hand, Ms. Hussain responded inappropriately, likely out of frustration. (Let's face it, kids of that age can be quite frustrating.)

The parents would likely portray their children as God-fearing young persons who have a right to express their religious preferences. Ms. Hussain would likely portray the children, the parents, and perhaps the general environment as hostile to someone who believes differently than the majority.

Arguments can be made about the rights to freedom of speech and religion that both the students and the teacher should have. Debates can be held about where the line must be drawn, and what balance must be struck. In this situation, most involved acted less than admirably. It will be interesting to see what final decision the Wake County School District comes to in this case.