There has recently been a bit of a brouhaha in Illinois at which Hemant Mehta, "The Friendly Atheist", is the center. Mr. Mehta is a math teacher in public school, Illinois’ District 204’s Neuqua Valley High School, to be exact, as well as a popular blogger. The controversy started because of a conservative Christian organization, the Illinois Family Institute (italics all their own), whose writer Laurie Higgins, Director of the IFI, decided to let people know that they should avoid the "Bean" in Millennium Park in Illinois on Saturday, August 15 at 1:00 pm because the "Great Nationwide Homosexual Kiss-In" was going to be taking place there. Lots of people responded to this, and Mr. Mehta was one of them. On his blog he wrote, “The only thing that could make this kiss-in even better is if it took place just outside Higgins’ house.” I want to say that, while funny, I don’t know that this was the most appropriate kind of response. Mr. Mehta insists that the remark was sarcastic, and that “Obviously, I didn’t mean on her property (that’d be illegal). And not purposely in front of her children.” I guess I’m much more bothered by the suggestion that people should show up on Ms. Higgins’ lawn in a sort of protest than I am that her kids might see some benign public display of affection. My concern would be that a public school teacher could be seen as exhorting his students to break the law. While Mr. Mehta later explicitly said that’s not what he intended, as the quote above indicates, I will say that such was not at all clear from the context of his initial post. (As an aside, it’s weird to me that his response was phrased in such a way as to suggest that her children seeing some homosexual couple kissing would be “worse” than the couple illegally trespassing. I mean, really? There’s more I could say about that, but I do not want to get away from my actual point here.)
Mr. Mehta’s response to the IFI’s “warning” about the Kiss-In led Ms. Higgins’ to write an email to the entire administrative staff of Mr. Mehta’s school as well as every area school board member. Part of that email read as follows: “He, of course, has a First Amendment right to write whatever he pleases on his blog ‘The Friendly Atheist’ during his free time, but it’s unfortunate that a role model for students would write some of the things he writes.” While the entire content of the letter is not available, Ms. Higgins did not stop with that email. She wrote this article on the IFI website further condemning Mr. Mehta. There she has published at least one response she received to her email:
Making District 204 leaders aware of Mr. Mehta’s comment was all I intended to do regarding this issue, that is, until I received an angry email from attorney and school board member, Mark Metzger. His email contained the following not-so-veiled threat of a lawsuit:
"Have you considered the possibility that if your actions caused Mr. Mehta to suffer consequences in his employment, you’d be subjecting yourself and/or your organization to liability? That’s potentially unwise to your organization’s self-sufficiency, surviival (sic) and mission."
In addition, he suggested I was setting "a poor example for families"…
Whatever the total content of the email was, it is clear that at least one school board member recognized that such correspondence could have the result of Mr. Mehta being fired. And this gets to the heart of the reason I’m addressing this. In this same article Ms. Higgins writes:
Of course, teachers have a First Amendment right to blog or speak publicly about anything they want. And parents have every right not to have their children in the classroom under the tutelage of someone whose publicly articulated views they find fallacious and deeply troubling. Having a First Amendment right to speak freely does not guarantee public approval or public silence. And the public response may be that parents choose not to have their children in the class of those who espouse views that parents find foolish and destructive.
Parents have a justifiable concern that the personal views of teachers may find their way into the classroom, either through curricular choices or classroom commentary. Those parents who want nothing more than that their children will believe in God may find someone whose mission in life is to persuade young people to reject a belief in God to be a poor role model.
If you read this as a call to action, you are not alone. Indeed, I cannot imagine who could read this as anything but a call to action for conservative, Christian parents to do something. But what is that something? It would appear that she wants these parents to band together to somehow get Mr. Mehta removed from his position as a public school teacher. What other action could she be suggesting? Giving her the benefit of the doubt that she is not wishing her readers to do actual violence to Mr. Mehta, I just cannot see what she would want the parents who “have every right not to have their children in the classroom under the tutelage of someone whose publicly articulated views they find fallacious and deeply troubling” to actually do if not that. In Ms. Higgins’ own article she provided evidence that someone reading similar words would take that call to action to be getting Mr. Mehta fired from his job, so she is clearly aware that that is just how her words will be taken. Since she continued to use similar words in her article to the public as she did in her letter to the school administration (“He, of course, has a First Amendment right to write whatever he pleases on his blog ‘The Friendly Atheist’ during his free time, but it’s unfortunate that a role model for students would write some of the things he writes.” vs. “Of course, teachers have a First Amendment right to blog or speak publicly about anything they want. … Those parents who want nothing more than that their children will believe in God may find someone whose mission in life is to persuade young people to reject a belief in God to be a poor role model.”), it would be absurd to suggest that she did not understand how her words would be understood.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Mehta responded to this article on his own blog. In it he writes, “It seems I have a conservative ‘family’ group angry with me because of this website. And they’re trying to attack my character (and my teaching position) as a result.” The following day Ms. Higgins posted this in the IFI site:
District 204 parents really should spend some time perusing Neuqua Valley math teacher, Hemant Mehta‘s website to determine whether he is the kind of man with whom they want their children to spend a school year. He absolutely has a First Amendment right to promote any feckless, destructive, offensive, and immoral ideas he wants via his blog, but, as I mentioned in my earlier article, parents have the right not to have him as a teacher and a role model for their children. I want to be very clear about what I’m suggesting: I am suggesting that parents who have serious concerns about Mr. Mehta’s potential influence on their children’s beliefs politely insist that their children be placed in another teacher’s class.
One notes the post here gives an explicit claim as to what is being suggested, and this differs from the earlier interpretation of the call to action that I claimed was reasonable. Here Ms. Higgins says that she simply thinks that parents should “politely insist that their children be placed in another teacher’s class.” Of course, one must ask how reasonable such a suggestion is. If it turns out that a significant number of parents continue to insist that their child be taught by someone else, and if the school is under any obligation to respect that demand, there seems to be little way that they could continue to employ Mr. Mehta. Further, and this needs to be addressed, is it reasonable to believe that Ms. Higgins wants any child taught by someone who promoting “feckless, destructive, offensive, and immoral ideas” in his capacity as a role model? I would think not. So, while it might not be the case that Ms. Higgins called for parents to phone the school board demanding Mr. Mehta’s immediate firing, it seems ridiculous to suggest that she wants anything other than that.
Of course, that’s just how Mr. Mehta took the article. He then wrote, “The Illinois Family Institute’s Laurie Higgins is going after me (and my job) again.” This would appear to be a wholly reasonable thing to say given what Ms. Higgens has actually written. So, here comes the big issue, Ms. Higgens responded by publishing an open letter to Mr. Mehta on the IFI site. It begins with the quote from Mr. Mehta above, and then follows with, “I have never in any context suggested that you should be fired or that you should resign. In fact, I don’t believe the school has any legal right to fire you. You should have fact-checked before you posted that inaccurate statement.”
So, for those of you still following along, here’s where the meat of my post comes. It is patently absurd to insist that you want anything other than the removal of a teacher when you have done everything in your power to make that happen! Did Ms. Higgins ever explicitly say she wanted him fired? No. But the reason for this is clear in her article. “In fact, I don’t believe the school has any legal right to fire you.” So, the reason she has not publically called for such a thing is because she does not believe that Mr. Mehta’s actions legally warrant that response by the school. But, of course, that is what Ms. Higgins desires. She has made that repeatedly clear, and the fact that she cannot legally get her desire in no way diminishes that. It is wholly dishonest for her to pretend that anything other than that is what’s going on here.
All that leads me to my big question. Why is she so deceitful? How does her lying about what she’s attempting to accomplish promote her values? And the answer is obvious. By taking the route she does she hopes to provide an actual reason for Mr. Mehta being removed from his position. It would not be what he’s written on his blog, because that will not cut it. But a large movement by area parents who refuse to let their children be taught by Mr. Mehta will have a similar result. Mr. Mehta will be unable to do his job, will face public ridicule, and, I suspect, the refusal of parents to let their children be taught by someone can be used in some way so as to provide a legal reason to fire Mr. Mehta.
All that means that what Ms. Higgins has said is bullshit. Flat out. She has danced around, deceived, and outright lied about her intentions in order to get what she wants. I have no doubt that Ms. Higgins holds “truth” to be an important value for families. And yet, she has no problem abandoning that value when it is convenient for her. If values can be discarded on a whim, that should suggest that those values are of little importance in the first place. People like Ms. Higgins should be shunned and her opinions fully disregarded by all sides. Their organizations should receive no support from anyone, especially not those who actually hold dear the values that Ms. Higgins parodies. Those who are genuine in their adherence to conservative, Christian values should view Ms. Higgins as the worst kind of enemy, a traitor within their own camp. And, of course, those who think her values of hatred and misrepresentation of those who differ from her are garbage should see her as nothing less than a genuine threat exemplified by all those who would plunge us into a new Dark Ages.