In the wake of an ever more divided political atmosphere, students often find themselves turning to the classroom setting to discuss politics. This discussion is one fraught with tension and conflicting viewpoints, and has thus left teachers with the responsibility to decide what role they want to play in these conversations: facilitator or participant?
About 66 percent of Pali students have had a teacher directly express their political views in class, according to a recent Tideline Schoology survey of 445 students. And in the wake of the 2016 election, this commentary has increased, according to 75.5 percent of responders.
It seems that the Los Angeles Unified School District is aware of this phenomena, as a link to a resource by the Anti-Defamation League, a non-governmental organization, was posted on the LAUSD website under “talking politics” encouraging educators to use the 2016 election as a teaching experience for students but also to “disagree without being disagreeable.”
A central concern about teachers openly expressing their opinions is the potentially adverse effect on a student’s learning experience if they feel alienated because their opinion differs from that of their teachers or classmates. A political disagreement between a teacher and a student has the potential to disrupt the main function of a school: to serve as a safe educational environment whose primary focus is academics.
Since teachers are in a position of power over students, many students may silence themselves on issues because it conflicts with a teacher’s. Additionally, a student who is uncomfortable with a teacher’s political commentary cannot simply leave the classroom.
“I have felt uncomfortable in the classroom before due to a teacher expressing a political belief that I disagreed with,” freshman Nick Nahreini, a commenter on the Tideline survey, said. “The topic was open to discussion for the class; however, since everyone expressed an opposite opinion than mine, I felt silenced. Both the teacher and the students’ aggression on the topic made me feel unsafe and unwelcome in the classroom.”
However, many students and educators feel that political discussion is essential to the educational experience. It broadens students’ intellectual horizons by exposing them to new ideas and encouraging civic engagement.
“It’s the responsibility of an educator to make sure that people know about different points of view,” AP United States History teacher Rob King said. “Certainly, different points of view are welcome in the classroom…I believe that it is my job to create a safe space.”
And discussing politics in class can expose students to political views besides those of their parents.
“If our educators neglect to discuss political norms and civic systems of governments, then they are needlessly stripping from their students the opportunity to learn how to develop and express viewpoints of their own,” junior Zachary Garai said. “It’s the civic responsibility of educators to spearhead open, constructive political dialogues — the students of today are the voters of tomorrow.”
The political discussions at Pali may not be so varied in viewpoints, however. According to the Los Angeles Times, over 70 percent of Pacific Palisades residents voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and Pali’s general political attitude leans left in both the faculty and student body. The neighborhood’s pervasive liberal atmosphere could have a dual effect of both sheltering already liberal students from new opinions while simultaneously further alienating conservative students because they have few similarly-minded teachers and students to turn to.
Some students are bothered by their community’s liberal political views. Last semester. Pali’s Conservative Club suggested a bill of rights that expands on the Student’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, emphasizing student freedom of speech and the need for teachers to remain neutral about politics.
“As someone who supports free speech, I think the school should be open to all students to discuss their kinds of ideological opinions; however, the teachers should remain neutral and respect everyone’s like any good moderator,” junior Jack Lehrer, a member of Pali’s Conservative Club, said.
Nonetheless, most students surveyed said that it was appropriate for teachers to discuss politics in a classroom setting.
“I believe that teachers should be able to discuss their own political views, particularly in relevance to its complementary subject, government,” senior J’adore Bailey said. “Students will be exposed to people that may have opposing political viewpoints out in the world. Hearing people’s different opinions of their views can help build and shape one’s own political view. One may disagree with the opinion of another, but it will only strengthen what they believe in.”
Pali math teacher Cheryl Rivin said, “I feel it is okay for teachers to give their views as long as they allow students to have their own views and [don’t] discount others.”
On the other hand, History Department Co-Chair Christopher Berry said that it is not the job of teachers to state their political views — with the exception of a few situations.
“For the most part, we need to remain objective and help students understand the conflicting sides or perspectives in history and in the world, but should there be objectivity when it comes to a group like the Nazis or the violence in Charlottesville? I do not feel that it is inappropriate, for instance, to criticize and call out the Nazis or the Confederacy,” he said.
The legal standing on teachers discussing politics is complex. Though the 1968 Supreme Court case Pickering v. Board of Education ruled that the First Amendment gave teachers the right to discuss issues of public importance, this has not always been upheld.
In 1996, California courts upheld the rights of San Diego schools to bar teachers from wearing political buttons, setting a precedent of allowing the restriction of teachers’ free speech rights in regards to politics.
And many factors show that despite the promise of First Amendment rights, punishment for speaking politically may still befall teachers. In Garcetti v. Caballos in 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that government employees are not protected by the First Amendment when they speak as public officials. In 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union similarly stated that since teachers aren’t speaking as private citizens when in the classroom, their statements are considered on behalf the school district and are thus not protected by the First Amendment.
Assistant Principal Monica Iannessa confirmed that at Pali, First Amendment rights do not extend to what a teacher says in the classroom because they are acting on behalf of the school. According to Iannessa, while students at Pali are encouraged to have political discussions, “educators are responsible for presenting political material in the classroom in a fair and balanced way.”
LAUSD permits students to be involved in “political or free speech activities while on school campus” but bars district employees from encouraging students to participate in “any student demonstration, distribution of materials, assembly, sit-in, or walk-out.”
Article XXV of the PCHS-UTLA contract states that “teachers shall be free to discuss, examine, present, and responsibly discuss various points of view” provided that in doing so teachers avoid “advocacy, personal opinion, bias, or partisanship.” While this does give an okay to political topics, it opens the door to possible consequences for any personal beliefs expressed by a teacher. The teachers at Pali who, according to the survey, are expressing political opinions would have to be giving “a fair and balanced academic presentation of various points of view.”
There have been instances of legal consequences for political commentary among teachers. In November 2016, a teacher at Mountain View High School in Northern California was suspended for multiple days because of a lesson in which he compared the rise of then President-Elect Donald Trump to that of Adolf Hitler. This event shows the possibility of punishment which surrounds political classroom discussions.
The controversy and high stakes of the current political climate also complicate the issue. Many of the issues that are considered political, such as the travel ban, directly affect the lives and rights of students. Avoiding bringing politics into the classroom can be a difficult feat in the current political atmosphere, and properly navigating these discussions to avoid blatant bias is equally difficult.
“The future of education, sciences and the humanities are heavily dependent on political developments, making it impossible to ignore in the classroom,” senior Ramtin Rastegar said. “Imagine being in AP Enviro, unable to have a class discussion about Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Climate Accord, shrink national monuments and reserves or appoint fossil fuel tycoons to the EPA; you would be missing a vital part of your education, not being able to develop real-world connections with the class curriculum.”
“This has been one of the more difficult times in the entire 25 years that I’ve been teaching on how to address [politics], because a lot of the things don’t just have to do with what we call political issues but moral ones as well,” King said. “If I feel that if something’s wrong, I can’t just stay silent on it.”