A former “Teacher of the Year” in Mount Dora, Fla. has been suspended and could lose his job after he voiced his objection to gay marriage on his personal Facebook page.
Jerry Buell, a veteran American history teacher at Mount Dora High School, was removed from his teaching duties this week as school officials in Lake County investigate allegations that what he posted was biased towards homosexuals.
“We took the allegations seriously,” said Chris Patton, a communication officer with Lake County Schools. “All teachers are bound by a code of special ethics (and) this is a code ethics violation investigation.”
Patton said the school system received a complaint on Tuesday about something Buell had written last July when New York legalized same sex unions. On Wednesday, he was temporarily suspended from the classroom and reassigned.
Patton said Buell has taught in the school system for 22 years and has a spotless record. Last year, he was selected as the high school’s “Teacher of the Year.”
But now his job is on the line because of what some have called anti-gay and homophobic comments.
Buell told Fox News Radio that he was stunned by the accusations. “It was my own personal comment on my own personal time on my own personal computer in my own personal house, exercising what I believed as a social studies teacher to be my First Amendment rights,” he said.
The school system declined to comment on the specific Facebook messages that led to their investigation, but Buell provided Fox News Radio with a copy of the two Facebook messages that he said landed him in trouble.
The first was posted on July 25 at 5:43 p.m. as he was eating dinner and watching the evening news.
“I’m watching the news, eating dinner when the story about New York okaying same-sex unions came on and I almost threw up,” he wrote. “And now they showed two guys kissing after their announcement. If they want to call it a union, go ahead. But don’t insult a man and woman’s marriage by throwing it in the same cesspool of whatever. God will not be mocked. When did this sin become acceptable?”
Three minutes later, Buell posted another comment: “By the way, if one doesn’t like the most recently posted opinion based on biblical principles and God’s laws, then go ahead and unfriend me. I’ll miss you like I miss my kidney stone from 1994. And I will never accept it because God will never accept it. Romans chapter one.”
According to the school system, what Buell wrote on his private account was disturbing. They were especially concerned that gay students at the school might be frightened or intimidated walking into his classroom. Patton also disputed the notion that Buell’s Facebook account is private.
“He has (more than) 700 friends,” he said. “How private is that – really? Social media can be troubling if you don’t respect it and know that just because you think you are in a private realm – it’s not private.”
Buell’s attorney strongly disagreed and accused the school system of violating his First Amendment rights.
“The school district is being anti-straight, anti-First Amendment and anti-personal liberty,” said Horatio Mihet, an attorney with the Liberty Counsel. “The idea that public servants have to whole-heartedly endorse homosexual marriage is repugnant to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” Mihet told Fox News Radio.
“All he did was speak out on an issue of national importance and because his comments did not fit a particular mold, he is now being investigated and could possibly lose his job. What have we come to?”
Buell said he does not know the individual who filed the complaint, but the past week has caused his family “heartache.”
“To try and say you could lose your job over speaking about something in the venue that I did in the manner that I did is not just a knee-jerk reaction,” he said. “It’s a violent reaction to one person making a complaint.”
But Patton said the school system has an obligation to take the comments seriously. He said Buell will not be allowed back in the classroom “until we do all the interviews and do a thorough job of looking at everything – past or previous writings.”
To accomplish that, he said people have been sending the school system screenshots of Buell’s Facebook page.
“Just because you think it’s private, other people are viewing it,” Patton said, noting that the teacher’s Facebook page also contained numerous Bible passages.
Mihet said he was livid.
“These are not fringe ideas that Mr. Buell espoused on his personal Facebook page,” he told Fox News Radio. “They are mainstream textbook opposition to homosexual unions – and now he’s been deemed unfit to teach children because he opposes gay marriage? My goodness.” Buell believes the school system is trying to send a message to Christian teachers.
“There is an intimidation factor if you are a Christian or if you make a statement against it (gay marriage) you are a bigot, a homophobe, you’re a creep, you’re intolerant,” he said. “We should have the right to express our opinions and talk about things.”
But some legal experts believe that school teachers could be held to a different standard when it comes to using social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
“This teacher is right on the cusp of going over the line,” said Miami attorney Justin Leto. “If he is ‘friends’ with his students on Facebook, then I think he should not be surprised by the school’s actions. However, if he has a private page and restricts student access, then he should be free to say what he wishes.”
Leto said teachers should have the right to make statements about their own personal beliefs without fear of retribution from their employer. “This assumes that the comments are not hateful, racist or malicious,” he said.
“It’s a little bit more complicated with a school teacher,” said Brad Jacob, a law professor at Regent University. “The first question you have to ask, did this context communicate that the teacher was speaking on behalf of the government?”
But what about on social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter? “School teachers generally have free speech rights, and the government may not censor the private speech on public school teachers,” he said.
However, if Buell had communicated his opinion on gay marriage in the classroom, Jacob said the teacher would have been on shaky legal ground. “If he communicated those views in the classroom, I think the state could have grounds to punish or fire him,” he said.
Reaction in Central Florida has been mixed.
Brett Winters, a former Mount Dora student, told the Orlando Sentinel he was disappointed about Buell’s comments. “This type of hateful language is dangerous not only to gay students, but also to anti-gay students,” Winters told the newspaper.
Michael Slaymaker, president of the Orlando Youth Alliance, told the newspaper that gay students might feel uncomfortable in Buell’s class.
“I would hope a teacher would be there to help them and not hurt them,” he told the Orlando Sentinel.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people have joined at least two Facebook groups calling for the school system to reinstate the popular teacher. “He’s developed a reputation as being one of the most caring teachers in the school,” Mihet said.
Buell said the most disappointing part of the investigation is that he may not be in his classroom on Monday – the first day of the school year.
“This is the place where you will receive the most respect out of any place you’ll be all day. I love my kids. I take my job very seriously.”
Todd Starnes is host of Fox News & Commentary and the author of "Dispatches from Bitter America: A Gun Toting, Chicken Eating Son of a Baptist's Culture War Stories."