Questions of free speech in schools are always fraught with complications – whether it involves student protesters of the Vietnam War or teachers expressing their moral or political beliefs to their students. One Portland teacher, who claims that his job is in danger because of his vocal opposition to Planned Parenthood, has become a case study for the limits of free expression within the classroom.
Christian News News and The The Oregonian both reported in late March that Portland Public schools had placed Bill Diss, who has taught at Benson High School for the past 11 years, on paid administrative leave and was declining to renew his teaching contract. Diss, a devout Roman Catholic, has been a longtime opponent of Planned Parenthood; he has been organizing efforts (outside of school hours) against Planned Parenthood’s furtherance into the community since 2007, and in 2010, he protested the opening of the organization’s new headquarters in northeast Portland.
Diss’s opposition to Planned Parenthood came into his school life in September of 2012, when he refused to let two representatives from the organization’s Teen Outreach Program into his classroom. Diss claims that he was reprimanded, as well as subsequently required to sit in on a Planned Parenthood presentation (though school district officials contend that he was disruptive throughout the presentation). In response, Diss organized a large group of people to come to a school board meeting to protest the Teen Outreach Program.
Diss claims that, after his refusal to let the Planned Parenthood representatives into his classroom, he received several notes from the administration that questioned his teaching skills, he was required to attend several hearings, and was eventually told that his contract would not be renewed. When he was placed on administrative leave on March 19, he was given only a few minutes to gather his things before he was escorted off school grounds by police officers.
According to district officials, Diss’s refusal to allow the representatives into the classroom was not the only reason he was placed on administrative leave. His suspension letter includes allegations that he tried to prevent students from attending the Teen Outreach Program by saying that they would end up on 82nd Avenue (an area known for the presence of many sex workers) and that Planned Parenthood kills over one million babies every three years. The letter also contains statements from a fellow teacher, who alleges that Diss often confronted and shouted at students, and told them to shut their mouths. While Diss claims that the references to 82nd Avenue were a misunderstanding, he does admit that he spoke about his religious beliefs and Planned Parenthood in his math, science, and study hall classes; he claims that doing so was not inappropriate because he allowed the students to express their own views freely as well.
While Diss has retained a lawyer, we have yet to see if this situation will escalate into a lawsuit. Nevertheless, it brings forward many interesting questions about the limits of free speech between teachers and students. If a judge were to find that Diss was fired merely for refusing to allow Planned Parenthood representatives into his classroom, it would be much harder to justify his dismissal than if the school district could prove that he regularly engaged in combative and inappropriate religious arguments with his students. While Diss certainly does not have the right to intimidate his students into adopting his religious and moral stances – and could rightfully be dismissed for doing so – if he can show that he appropriately expressed his opinions, he might have a chance at challenging his dismissal.
If you believe that you have been wrongfully dismissed or penalized, please contact one of ourattorneys, who can help you evaluate your claim