Two Cases Raise Questions About Free Speech Versus School Policies

By David Cruz

Forest Street Elementary School teacher Marilyn Zuniga was teaching a lesson about the origins of this quote — “So long as one just person is silenced, there is no justice.”

It’s from Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life sentence for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer. Learning that Abu-Jamal was ill, Zuniga says her students wanted to send get well letters to him in prison. Once news of the project got out, Zuniga was fired, the board says for unprofessional conduct and for not following district’s approved curriculum.

“I can’t say I was completely surprised,” Zuniga said today. “I was definitely disappointed. I was disappointed. I was disappointed in how the district handled the situation. I was disappointed in their decision. I do not believe I deserved to be terminated. My actions were completely disproportionate with the actions that they took.”

The story became national news, prompting comments on the floor of Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

“If third-graders are sending cards, let them be condolences to the families of people like Mr. Scott and Officer Faulkner and not to the murderer of one of our fellow Pennsylvanians,” chided Representative Nick Miccarelli.

Zuniga says she is contemplating legal action against the district. Meanwhile, in South Orange, Seton Hall University is feeling pressure from the LGBT community and its supporters after it “reassigned” the Reverend Warren Hall, who had served as director of the university’s campus ministry after he expressed support on social media for the group NOH8.

“NOH8 has as one of its primary goals same-sex unions — the promotion and legalization of same-sex unions. That is not a stance that is in agreement with Catholic teachings,” said Newark Archdiocese spokesperson Jim Goodness. “So there was a disconnect there and that caused concern.”

The Archdiocese, which oversees the campus ministry, said today that its decision to transfer Hall was made two weeks before he made his thoughts known publicly, and that they basically agreed with his sentiments.

But that when he supported a group that supported same-sex marriage, that’s where he came in contradiction with church policy, and that was part of the reason for his transfer, admitted Goodness.

“We’re supposed to be living in a world of love,” said Andrea Bowen, the executive director of Garden State Equality. “It’s supposed to be about showing compassion and love towards everybody, so when there is an example of anti-LGBT bigotry, to me, that is completely contrary to the message of the gospel.”

The irony here is that the university just lauded the transfer of openly-gay U Mass college basketball player Derrick Gordon.

In the end, the lesson for educators and students — from elementary school to the university level — is that all speech is free but that free speech has its consequences.