Gregory Harrison, who teaches at Corner High School, also will receive sensitivity training and have a letter placed in his personnel file. That is the full extent of punishment Harrison will receive for an incident that earned national attention.
The Harrison case is filled with irony. For one, it illustrates a dramatic double standard regarding political speech in Alabama public education. Two, it took what is essentially a union--long known as a "liberal organization"--to protect the job of a teacher who discussed the possible assassination of the nation's first black president.
We've already noted how Harrison's light punishment, for something he clearly did, contrasts with my punishment at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)--for something I didn't even do. Here's how we put it in a recent post:
I had worked 19 years in various editorial positions at UAB when I was canned on May 19, 2008. I had received good to excellent performance reviews throughout that time and had no disciplinary record under UAB policy. But I had spoken out on this blog in what could be called a progressive manner--writing critically about corruption in the Bush Justice Department--and soon a 30-year career as a professional journalist was in tatters.
In a termination letter, UAB gave vague reasons for my firing, saying I had violated university policies--without saying what those policies were. The general allegation seemed to be that I had engaged in excessive "non-work related activity" (NWR) and misused my university computer.
We even provided an audio file that shows the real reason I was fired--I was writing a blog that was critical of the Bush DOJ's actions in the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. You can check out that three-minute audio below. For about the first 1:40, UAB Employee Relations Director Anita Bonasera and I discuss the nature of my job duties. At about 1:50, she admits my job issues are related to my blog. And at roughly the 2:08 mark, she admits I was targeted because of the Siegelman content on my blog:
Audio: UAB and the Cost of Blogging About the Siegelman Case
I was not protected by a union at UAB, and that was a huge factor in my experience. It's unlikely that any employer would pull such a stunt with a collective-bargaining agreement in place.
Gregory Harrison, to his great good fortune, was protected, by the Alabama Education Association (AEA). AEA describes itself as an "advocate organization," not a union. But whatever you call it, AEA saved Gregory Harrison's bacon.
Consider this quote from Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Phil Hammonds:
"This has been a very unfortunate set of circumstances. We have received phone calls and e-mails from people with varying opinions on this. . . . but there has been frank discussion between the Alabama Education Association and our board attorneys to find a way to come to some closure."
Translation: We would have canned Harrison if he didn't have the AEA to go to bat for him.
I'm all for the AEA standing up for its members. But that doesn't address the problem of other public employees paying a huge price in Alabama for daring to exercise their First Amendment rights.