One of the earliest Ethics Alarms posts concerned Barrow County, Georgia, teacher Ashley Payne, who was forced out of her job at Apalachee High School for posting photos on Facebook that showed Payne drinking beer and wine while on a vacation to Europe. Barrow had a policy stating that employees can be investigated, disciplined and terminated for postings on Web sites that contain provocative photographs, sexually explicit messages, use of alcohol, drugs or anything students are not supposed to do. In the initial post, I took the position that the school over-reacted, but that Payne was still accountable because she knew what the policy was and violated it:
“It is reasonable to require teachers to avoid personal conduct that undermines their ability to hold the respect of their students. Similarly, it is reasonable for schools to require teachers not to engage in conduct that the education system needs to discourage or condemn. Teachers are role models and authority figures. What they do, in class, or out of it, influences student attitudes and conduct.
“This means that conduct that would be appropriate or harmless in other contexts can be inappropriate for teachers. The internet poses risks that didn’t exist twenty years ago; private conduct posted on the web is accessible to students, making private conduct substantially public. In writing about another teacher who was fired for having nude photos of herself on the web (and refusing to take them down), I articulated “the Naked Teacher Principle,” which is simply this: a responsible high school teacher has a duty to take reasonable care that her students do not see her in the nude. It is not too much to ask.
“For ‘in the nude,’ substitute drinking, bar-hopping, playing drinking games, driving with one’s feet, having sex, shooting assault rifles, abusing animals, casino gambling, smoking pot, wearing Nazi uniforms, wearing blackface, attending Klan rallies, visiting topless bars, shopping at sex shops, reading Playboy or Hustler, engaging in sado-masochist role-playing, and painting pictures using one’s butt. Clearly, Ashley Payne is at the mildest end of this spectrum. It was a vacation, and she’s an adult. There is nothing wrong with having wine or beer with friends. Still, Payne knew Barrow’s policy stating that employees can be terminated for postings that contain provocative photographs…’Provocative’ is subject to interpretation (nothing on Payne’s Facebook page could fairly be called “provocative”), but she clearly violated the policy by showing herself drinking alcoholic beverages. She was careless, and she was wrong. This is not, however, like the naked teacher (who had turned herself, more or less permanently, into a sex object through her nudity)…The students know that adults drink adult beverages, and that their teachers, being adults, probably do too. There is nothing in Payne’s photos that undermine her authority or endorse dangerous or wrongful conduct. She could have defused the matter with one brief statement to the class; she could even have used it to launch a useful and educational discussion. In short, the school over-reacted…”
Ah, how naive I was in those golden days of yore, before a welter of outrageously unfair school administrator decisions taught me that “over-reaction” often doesn’t come close to describing the quality of thought and justice occurring in our public schools these days. Payne’s lawsuit for wrongful termination is finally getting to trial, and additional details of her dismissal are being revealed. Such as:
- She posted the picture above on her Facebook page, but under full privacy settings. No student could have accessed it.
- The photo was taken from her site by a Facebook friend and posted on the friend’s Facebook page, without privacy settings.
- The complaint about the photo that triggered Payne’s firing was in the form of an anonymous e-mail.
I retract the earlier post: Ashley Payne did nothing wrong. A school may legitimately tell teachers that they are responsible for not undermining their authority and school discipline with irresponsible postings on social media, but posting a photo this innocuous, from a vacation, under privacy settings, is not irresponsible. In addition, a school is exceeding its authority by telling teachers (or students) what they can and cannot post on their own Facebook pages using privacy settings. If a photo picked up bu another site showed conduct that was illegal or otherwise cause for dismissal on its own, a firing might be justifiable. But adults can drink beer and wine during their leisure time, and students know it. Whatever the line is where a teacher’s private photos raise legitimate concerns, Ashley Payne’s innocent photo wasn’t within a country mile of crossing it. This isn’t the Naked Teacher Principle.
This is the Incompetent School Administrator Principle.