August 4, 2020

Is there such thing as a right to call students whatever you damn well please? Nope.

I worship John Dewey and it’s against my religion to call dumb people smart. Forcing me to call dummies intelligent is clearly a violation of my First Amendment rights, and it douses academic freedom with cold water.

So, when I read today that John Kluge, a teacher in Indiana, was standing tall against efforts to make him call things by names other than what they are, I cheered his courage.

Yet, on closer inspection I discovered he wasn’t in trouble for calling things something other than what he wanted them to be called, he was on the hot seat for calling people out of their name. Literally.

(j/k everything above was a joke to illustrate a point).

Kluge feels his school district’s policy that requires staff to call students by their chosen name infringes on his rights because his religion prevents him from encouraging transgender students to pursue a “dangerous lifestyle” (i.e. being themselves).

“I’m fine to teach students with other beliefs, but the fact that teachers are being compelled to speak a certain way is the scary thing.”

The Insider says the school district implemented the rule…

…in January when the Brownsburg Community School Corporation distributed a document entitled “Transgender Questions,” which outlined the district’s policies. The new guidelines allowed trans students to use the bathroom of their choosing. It also stated that students could change their names at school if they provided two letters of support — one from a parent and one from a medical professional. If a student followed these steps, staff were required to call them by their chosen name and pronouns, per the documents.

Schools nationally have faced controversy for pursuing policies that support the rights of transgender students, often facing pushback for interpreting federal law too broadly.

Advocates for students’ rights see it differently. They see Title IX protections against sex discrimination as covering transgender students.

They also point out a heartbreaking and compelling reason to change school practices. The risk of suicide for transgender students can be as high as double that of non-transgender students.

The most sympathetic and thoughtful view would treat Kluge and students who want their identities validated by the government (and its workers) that compels them to attend school equally.

Yes, free speech advocates should at least glance at Kluge’s claims. And, civil rights activists should fight for students to be self-determining.

In this case, facts and law matter, and on that note law professor Derek Black disputes Kluge’s case:

First of all, teachers’ expressive rights are far narrower than many might think.  The curriculum and policies belong to the district, not the teacher. So once a district or school exercises its judgment on what to teach (so long as it has not violated the law in doing so), the teacher cannot decide something different.  For instance, if the school says, sixth graders shall read Huck Finn, a teacher cannot say, “I’m not teaching Huck Finn because I think it is racist.”  The teacher can hold that view about the book and even advocate for change at the school board, but he cannot buck the school’s curriculum decision in the classroom.

The same reasoning applies to students’ names.  The district could take the position that teachers will only call students by their last names because they think it creates the type of formal and respective environment that is conducive to learning.  The district might be wrong, but that is not the teacher’s decision to make.

The decision on transgender names seems even more clear cut.  My assumption is that if James wants to be called Jim or Jimmy, most any school would honor that.  And if the James wants to be called Jane, the school ought to consent to that as well.  To do otherwise would presumably trigger intermediate scrutiny.  If a school cannot pass intermediate scrutiny to deny a transgender student access to a bathroom that comports with the student’s gender identity, there is no way the school can pass intermediate scrutiny in regard to the simple question of the name by which it will call on a student.

In short, a transgender student’s preferred name is one that a school almost certainly must use.  Once we reach that conclusion, then teachers have no choice but to comply.

With so many real issues to negotiate between American groups, and so many of them requiring citizens to be smart about their own rights without infringing on others, it’s a shame we get caught in the net of self-promotional and needlessly controversial episodes like the case of a silly teacher who believes calling students by a name their prefer rises to the level of constitutional impasse.

Johh Kluge, please shut up.

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