It was the day after President Bush’s State of the Union address, and social studies teacher Jay Bennish was warning his world geography class not to be taken in.
“Sounds a lot like the things that Adolf Hitler used to say,” Bennish told students at the suburban high school Feb. 2. “ ‘We’re the only ones who are right, everyone else is backward and our job is to conquer the world.’ ”
The teacher quickly made clear that he wasn’t equating Bush with Hitler, but the damage was done. A sophomore in the class had recorded the lecture on an MP3 player, and turned it over this week to a local conservative talk radio show.
Bennish, who has taught at Overland High School for five years, was placed on paid leave Wednesday by the Cherry Creek School District, sparking an uproar over issues of free speech and teacher conduct.
About 150 Overland students walked out of class Thursday to protest Bennish’s absence, and the teacher’s lawyer -- who met with district officials Friday -- has threatened a federal lawsuit.
Attorney David Lane contended on the Mike Rosen radio show, which originally played the tape, that his client’s comments were not outlandish and were intended to get students to think about current events.
“Maybe it’s not mainstream, middle-American opinion,” Lane said Friday. “But the rest of the world agrees with him.”
Lane added that if Bennish had spoken strongly in support of Bush, he would not be under investigation.
Tustin Amole, a spokeswoman for the school district, said officials were investigating whether Bennish had violated a policy that prohibited teachers from intimidating students who held political beliefs different from their own.
“Teachers do have a 1st Amendment right to express their opinion,” Amole said, “but it must be in the context of the material being taught and it must provide a balanced point of view.”
The Cherry Creek district, with 47,000 students, encompasses an arc of suburbs southeast of Denver; voter registration within its boundaries leans slightly Republican.
A partial transcript of the student’s recording portrayed Bennish voicing a range of criticisms of U.S. policy and the war in Iraq. Bennish has not disputed the accuracy of the recording.
The teacher said in the recording that American troops had spent 30 years fighting the drug war in Colombia and using chemical weapons to eradicate coca fields. Bennish called the U.S. “probably the single most violent nation on planet Earth,” saying it had committed more than 7,000 “terrorist sabotage acts” against Cuba.
During the class, Bennish questioned why the United States was allowed to wage war in the Middle East but Palestinians were condemned as terrorists for attacking Israel. A student interjected that the U.S. did not single out civilians, unlike Palestinian terrorists. The teacher asked students how Israel was created, telling them that Zionists used assassination and bombings to create their state.
According to the transcript, Bennish concluded by telling his students: “I’m not implying in any way you should agree with me .... What I’m trying to do is to get you to ... think about these issues more in depth.” He thanked them for asking questions.
Reed Dickson, director of a program at Columbia’s Teachers College that places Peace Corps volunteers in urban classrooms, said he thought teachers should express their personal political opinions in class and feared that cases such as Bennish’s could intimidate some from questioning the government.
But, Dickson added, teachers must exercise restraint so they don’t impose their views on students. “Once the teacher takes on the role of indoctrinating, the educational process is not possible,” he said.
Rodney Smolla, dean of the University of Richmond law school in Virginia and a 1st Amendment expert, said that courts allow school districts to regulate teachers’ speech.
“Teachers have 1st Amendment rights to speak on matters of public interest in the general marketplace, but they don’t have as great a level of rights when speaking inside the classroom on matters related to the curriculum,” he said.