Is it possible to defame a teacher?

It seems there is a new chapter in the saga of The Teddy Bear Master. For those of you who may not know, this is a movie made by a group of Knightstown High School boys which supposedly depicts stuffed animals plotting and carrying out the murder of a teacher at the intermediate school as well as the same teacher trading extra credit for sexual favors. I say supposedly because I have not actually viewed the video, just read about the content as well as the case in several of the local papers. The boys were suspended from school, took the case to court saying their First Amendment Rights were violated and not only had their records expunged, but also got $69,000 in damages from the school. Now, the teacher named in the movie is suing for defamation of character as well as damages from both the students and their parents.

Wow. I have really mixed feelings about this case. As a staunch supporter of the First Amendment, I believe that parody is protected speech. I’ve seen a variety of student made films, especially at the ninth grade level and know how ridiculous they usually are. The jokes are generally only funny to those making the movie and are so badly edited and thrown together as to inspire little more than a pathetic chuckle. I’ve even been made fun of in a few of the films and never took it too personally. Hey, big surprise, kids make fun of teachers. They make fun of teachers they hate, but they also make fun of teachers they really like. They’re kids; it’s what they do.

During my first year teaching, I had a group of seventh grade girls both in class and in a production I was directing. They got into a fight about something and became absolutely hateful to each other. Normally I don’t see this as any of my business, but they decided to use rehearsal time as a means to torment one of the girls involved. When they made it my problem, I sat them all down and gave them a good yelling at. I threatened to recast them all if I heard so much as a peep out of any of them that wasn’t civil. In “retalliation” two of the girls decided to put me in their short stories for class. We were studying Mr. Poe and their stories featured an English teacher, who fit my physical description as well as her husband (another shocking resemblance here) who ended up being tortured and killed by their student for unfair treatment. A young girl, who clearly resembled their teasing victim, was also in the story, identified by her middle name. She met an equally gruesome end. I took the matter to the principal and the girls were made to apologize to me. Despite my firm belief in freedom of speech, this was a class assignment and they used it inappropriately and they needed to know that. I’ll admit I never actually feared for my life, but thought the girls needed a life lesson** about handling their anger and how to deal with their “bosses” so to speak. Keep in mind this was all pre-Columbine. Had it been just two years later, I wonder if those girls would have been expelled.

But my example was from a school project that they were turning in for a grade. The Teddy Bear Master was not. If the film was made outside of school on their own time and was not distributed on school grounds, I really don’t see how the school could justify suspending the kids or even saying anything to them. Except of course, that the principal got a copy of the movie. And if the principal got a copy, I’m guessing many of the other students did too. Here is where the potential problem lies.

While I am all for freedom of speech, I am not for slandering people. Teachers are still private citizens and have the right not to be held up to the public for mocking. A student film may not seem like it could have this effect, but once students see you as an object for laughter and lose respect for you, as a teacher, your job gets really hard. This in itself is not slanderous, I realized. However, the implication that a teacher exchanges extra credit for sex, even in a teenaged “parody,” borders on it. Again, I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know how accurate these claims are, but I do know what being a male teacher and accused in anyway of sexual impropriety can do to a teaching career. I watched it happen to a colleague of mine, who I know was innocent. He was accused by another teacher of having an inappropriate relationship with one of his students. Now, the only thing this teacher ever saw was the girl in our office, talking to a teacher in a way that seemed very friendly. I should mention that this was not out of the ordinary at all. Students hung out in our office on a daily basis, always with the door open because they liked the group of us in the office. The student and my friend did have a bit more of a friendship than a teacher/student relationship, but we are talking about a girl who regularly read beat poetry, listened to jazz and actually watched good, intellectual movies. And yet because my friend made a connection with this girl outside the classroom, he was labelled and while the official stance was that “they found someone more qualified,” I was in on the interviews and the “relationship” was brought up and I know it is the reason he lost his job. I should point out that I had a very similar relationship with her and many of my other drama students, but nothing was said about me.

What am I getting at with all of this? The problem, of course, is that I don’t have a conclusive answer. I don’t think the boys should have been expelled and yet I believe that if they did slander their teacher, there ought to be consequences for their actions. We wouldn’t allow actual directors and actors to slander someone, so these young men need to be taught they aren’t allowed to do it either. It is very easy for a careless student to ruin a teacher’s career. These boys will be out of high school in two years and need to realize they’ve hurt someone. I hope if nothing else, they see this as a new learning experience and come away from it a little wiser, and maybe a little kinder.

 **The two girls got over their anger quite quickly, as most teens do, and one of them became one of my favorite students. She even invited me to see her in a production of the same play we did that year after she’d gone off to college. She still emails me on occassion.

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