Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

The danger of teaching critical thinking

First Amendment | A teacher who asked tough questions about walkouts is suspended, but one student takes her challenge seriously
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 3/27/18, 03:06 pm

Brandon Gillespie, a junior at Rocklin High School in northern California, put his history teacher’s theory to the test last week. He asked his school’s principal if school administrators would provide the same accommodations for a pro-life demonstration as they did for a March 14 anti–gun violence student walkout.

Days before the nationally promoted walkout, Julianne Benzel, an Rocklin history teacher of 20 years, polled each of her four Advanced Placement U.S. history classes to gauge their awareness of the upcoming demonstration. Benzel told me very few of her 120 students knew about the walkout that was promoted as a memorial to the people killed in the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting Feb. 14. She suggested they spend their weekend researching the topic and talking to their parents about the event whose supporters included the Women’s March organizers and other leftist organizations.

Then, before moving on to her planned discussion of President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb, she took advantage of the teachable moment. Benzel asked the students if they thought it appropriate for the school to accommodate the walkout, and would that oblige administrators to facilitate similar protests on different topics, like abortion? If not, would that indicate a double standard?

The questions prompted good discussions, with no negative feedback, in each class, Benzel said.

Gillespie considered the walkout a waste of instructional time and planned to remain in class when others left for the 17-minute demonstration. On the day of the walkout, school administrators placed Benzel on paid administrative leave, and Gillespie recalled her questions.

“When Mrs. Benzel was placed on administrative leave it inspired me to go to school administration and test to see if there was a double standard,” Gillespie told me.

The 17-year-old, along with his father and two high school friends, met with Principal Davis Stewart on Friday to discuss Gillespie’s request to lead a pro-life walkout on April 11. He asked the school to provide all the same accommodations it did for the Enough National School Walkout: a public address system, tents in case of rain, no absences recorded, and no tests given at the time of the walkout.

Stewart told Gillespie he would consult with district officials and respond by April 2, the Monday after students returned from spring break.

But Benzel still has unanswered questions.

The day after the walkout she met with Stewart and her new attorney, Kevin Snider of the Pacific Justice Institute. Stewart showed her a parent email saying Benzel “crossed a line” when she mentioned abortion in her class discussion. A student wrote that the abortion discussion made her feel “uncomfortable.” Another student who wrote a note did not lodge a complaint.

Believing the administration had received a barrage of complaints, Benzel was dumbfounded.

“This is it? This is why you turned my world upside down?” she said she asked Stewart.

The school did not place Benzel on leave because of her viewpoints, and the action is not punitive, Diana Capra, Rocklin Unified School District communications and community engagement director, told me. Even so, the situation has been unnerving for Benzel, who said she has endured with the support of her church and “prayer warrior” friends, including Pastor Greg Fairrington and his wife, Kathy.

In Benzel’s opinion, the administration’s active support of the walkout ran contrary to its claims of neutrality. The no-consequences protest provided a stark contrast to her students’ recent study of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

“I had one student who so insightfully said, ‘If you really want to protest something and you really believe in a cause, you have to sacrifice. You have to be punished,’” Benzel said.

Her theory may again be put to the test during another national school walkout planned for April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

Associated Press/Photo by Anna Reed/Statesman-Journal Associated Press/Photo by Anna Reed/Statesman-Journal Judge Vance Day enters a judicial fitness hearing in June 2017 in Salem, Ore.

A judge’s punishment

The Oregon Supreme Court upheld six of eight ethics violations against a county judge earlier this month, including one count of discrimination for trying to avoid officiating same-sex weddings. Other serious transgressions, unrelated to the marriage issue, warranted a three-year suspension without pay, its most severe suspension to date, the court said.

Numerous media outlets implied or declared that the court suspended Marion County Judge Vance Day for refusing to marry same-sex couples. But a review of the 91-page ruling reveals the court concluded Day’s actions outside his courtroom and during the investigation of those incidents by the Oregon Commission on Judicial Fitness and Disability earned him the lengthy penalty.

One of the commission’s two most serious allegations involves Day’s 2016 criminal indictments on two felony gun charges and two first-degree counts of official misconduct. The commission’s investigation into those accusations and others, including the discrimination complaint, resulted in eight counts of misconduct and a recommendation that Day be removed from office. On appeal, the Oregon Supreme Court dismissed two of the counts but found two others that called for his suspension.

Day’s criminal trial begins April 17 in Salem, Ore.

The court did not address Day’s religious liberty defense related to solemnizing same-sex marriages, saying the seriousness of the other charges precluded the need to consider his constitutional arguments.

Kim Colby, director of the Christian Legal Society, considered that a positive aspect of the decision. By not ruling on Day’s free exercise claims, Colby told me, “the court left open the important possibility that federal law might well protect a judge from being disciplined for his or her religious beliefs regarding participation in a same-sex wedding ceremony.”

When a federal judge ruled in 2014 that Oregon gay and lesbian people could marry, Day asked his staff to “discreetly” screen applicants and tell same-sex couples he had a scheduling conflict. Only once did his staff discover a same-sex marriage application, and Day actually had a legitimate scheduling conflict. Several weeks later, Day stopped officiating all marriages, according to court documents. —B.P.

Facebook/NORML ISU Facebook/NORML ISU Lawyers with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sport T-shirts commissioned by Iowa State University students.

Token T-shirts

Almost $1 million in Iowa taxpayer money went up in smoke after Iowa State University officials agreed to settle a lawsuit challenging a ban on marijuana-promoting T-shirts emblazoned with the school’s mascot. On March 21, Judge James E. Gritzner added $598,208 in attorneys fees and court costs to the $343,000 already settled on in January when the school ended its appeal of the 2012 lawsuit.

The settlement comes after months of failed appeals by Iowa State following the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal’s ruling in June that the school committed viewpoint discrimination when it prohibited plaintiffs, former students Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh, from producing the shirts. The state agreed to award the pair $75,000 each for “emotional stress” and their attorneys $193,000 in fees in January. Gritzner granted the latest awarded after the students’ attorneys requested additional compensation for four years of work. —B.P.

One down, six to go

At least one challenger has failed to halt the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services expansion of religious exemptions to Obamacare’s contraceptive and abortifacient mandate. Seven states sued in October 2017 when the Trump administration signed off on the pro-life regulation addendum that protected the religious liberty of nonprofit groups such as the Little Sisters of the Poor who object to providing contraceptive and abortifacient coverage. A federal judge ruled March 12 that Massachusetts had no standing to file the lawsuit and granted summary judgment to the defendants. The other lawsuits persist, and the Little Sisters of the Poor remain caught in a fight they thought they had won when the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 ordered all parties in the lawsuit Zubik v. Burwell to hash out a solution.B.P.

Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie reports on First Amendment freedoms for WORLD Digital.

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