When one of us screws up and we do nothing, that makes us all look bad. And no, backpedaling doesn’t help.

On July 4th, a story broke about UWM School of Information Studies Senior Lecturer Betsy Schoeller and the heinous comment she made about the murder of Specialist Vanessa Guillen on a Facebook group geared towards veterans.

For the past month, you’ve seen me, Aubrey, Kerri, Alyssa, Conrrado, Mary Elizabeth, Jane, and Alice write about the pervasive and systemic problems of discrimination, racism, sexism, and homophobia (among others) in the library and information field; and now the discussion continues with my latest post here as these systemic, pervasive issues frustratingly persist. Also, to make this current situation even more mindbogglingly bad than it already was, UWM backed Betsy Schoeller – they stood by her, citing intellectual freedom.

Free speech, freedom of expression, and intellectual freedom do mean she gets to say this without facing punishment. But, if you say something in a public forum that brings your ethics and judgment into question, something dangerous or vile, shouldn’t there be consequences for that? It’s all well and good for UWM to say that it only matters to them how their employees behave in the academic environment, but teachers have been historically held to a higher standard in that regard. What a teacher does and says outside of the classroom does have an effect on what happens in their classrooms and, apparently, the US Third Circuit Court agrees with that idea (Several, 2018).

Outing yourself as a sexist to the point where you’re condoning murder is not a good look; and that’s not someone who should be teaching the next generation of librarians in a field where we already have documented issues with sexism, as well as diversity, inclusivity, and equity. This is an abdication of the social responsibility librarians have and it continues the perpetuation of the cycles of discrimination that we know exist in this field. To sit back and do nothing about these behaviors, to allow these statements to go unchallenged and unpunished makes everyone in our profession look bad; and it tarnishes the credibility of libraries as an institution.

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of a public school teacher who was fired for publishing a letter to the editor that criticized the school board’s allocation of funds between educational and athletic programs. The decision in Pickering v. Board of Education held that public school employees do not forfeit their First Amendment rights and are able to publicly weigh in on issues of public importance or concern. “[When] the fact of employment is only tangentially and insubstantially involved in the subject matter of the public communication made by a teacher, we conclude that it is necessary to regard the teacher as the member of the general public he seeks to be,” wrote Justice Thurgood Marshall in his majority opinion.

Balancing Act

That ruling also established what is now known as the Pickering balancing test, in which the court weighs the employee’s interest in commenting upon matters of public concern and the employer’s interest in “promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs.” In other words, a teacher cannot publicly say something so offensive or inflammatory that it impacts her ability to do her job and educate students. “Speech that directly impugns students, fellow teachers, or administrators—that’s not going to fare well in the balancing test,” Hudson said. “Speech that would represent a direct affront to basic decency and dignity—that’s going to be a problem as well.”

Will, M. (March 17, 2020). “Teachers, Politics, and Social Media: A Volatile Mix.” Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/03/18/teachers-politics-social-media-a-volatile-mix.html

I wonder what the Pickering balancing test would have to say about this situation, given that there is currently a petition with 146,000+ signatories saying they want to see Schoeller face consequences because they believe what she said to be a direct affront to basic decency and dignity. What she said isn’t illegal, and it is indeed protected by the First Amendment in the U.S. But, where do we draw the line?

There’s a lot of information out there about this in relation to K-12 teachers because of the impressionability of children, but it’s equally important at the higher education level. This is where people are learning how to be managers and leaders. They should be learning how to do this with an eye towards diversity, inclusion, and respect; and if an instructor makes a post that throws up red flags about their ability to be impartial in matters of diversity, inclusion, and respect, do they have enough trust to be responsible for teaching and molding the professional opinions of future librarians? Schoeller wouldn’t be the first professor to face this kind of backlash, as we’ve seen more than one professor and other professionals lose their jobs in the past few months for racist speech and behaviors:

With good reason, there’s a larger ongoing narrative around this issue, especially in libraries right now. It goes back to the neutrality issue I brought up in my last article. Just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should be given a platform if what you have to say is going to cause harm. Hate speech doesn’t exist in a vacuum – a hateful comment posted in a Facebook group says something about the person who left the comment. As evidenced by Farkas (2020), hate speech when viewed in a historical context is inextricably linked with physical violence. So, we need to recognize the power imbalances in our societies (Farkas, 2020).

Teachers have power and, because of that, when a teacher presents themselves as any form of bigot under the banner of intellectual freedom, the consequence is that marginalized students lose out and are no longer safe in that classroom environment. Libraries and librarians have a core value to protect and promote free speech, but we also have a responsibility to make sure our spaces are safe for everyone who enters them and we need to learn about that in our MLIS programs. Asking us to learn it from someone who doesn’t practice it isn’t going to have the desired result. Remember, intellectual freedom and social justice are not the same thing (Shockey, 2015, p. 102) and the tension between these two value is divisive in librarianship.

The ALA statement on Intellectual Freedom, somewhere along the line, got boiled down to “libraries and librarians MUST be neutral, always,” even though that statement doesn’t appear anywhere in their definition of intellectual freedom. There are multiple problems with this notion. First, this is what many people in the profession believe, that neutrality must be in place for every single situation and that taking any side isn’t neutral. The second problem lies in the fact that, because MLIS programs in North America are accredited by the ALA, their curriculums focus on ALA values; which means that because the myth of neutrality is so widely held onto, it gets perpetuated which is what allows quagmires on intellectual freedom and social responsibility to form. Or, as Shockey (2015) puts it, “the ALA has a vested interest in maintaining and transmitting a neutrality-focused conception of intellectual freedom to library practitioners as part of the profession’s ethics” (p. 107). But I ask you, when we ignore situations like this by letting a bigoted professor continue to teach; when we allow hate groups to use our meeting spaces even though our communities are crying out against this, are we not compromising the very ethics we’re claiming to be enforcing?

Schoeller did release a statement in which she tried to backpedal after the controversy erupted over her original comment. She wants us to take her sincerely this time saying that she didn’t mean what she said; but she also wants us to believe that she means this apology. She said she doesn’t condone sexual harassment or sexual assault in any circumstances. She claimed she “was giving voice to the messaging that women hear in the culture of sexual harassment: The message we receive from the culture is not only will you suffer from sexual harassment, if you squawk about it, you will suffer even more” (Schoeller, 2020). The problem is that this comes as an addendum in a vacuum of her original post which bares no contextual information about this.

She acknowledges this is a problem, that she is sad that her original post was taken out of context, and shocked by it. But, as a professor of library science, I argue she should have known this would happen. She didn’t provide any context for the content of her post, and thus allowed audiences to infer their own context. Apologizing after the fact based on the fact the audience misinterpreted the words doesn’t make this situation any better. This kind of backpedaling only makes Schoeller and the profession look worse. It comes off as performative, as being a result of being caught and not a sincere sense of social responsibility. If Schoeller wants to be believed and restore her reputation and untarnish the stain on the profession that comes from this kind of controversy, then she and UWM need to do more than make performative apologies.


Works Cited

Farkas, M. (2020, May 1). When Speech Isn’t Free. American Libraries Magazine. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2020/05/01/neutrality-when-speech-isnt-free/

Schoeller, B. (2020, July). Email: Webview: News from UWM: Personal statement by Betsy Schoeller regarding the death of Specialist Vanessa Guillen. https://t.e2ma.net/message/u0q2sd/qdm8uyr

Several, E. (2018, February 1). Sustaining Academic Freedom: The Need to Redefine the Threshold Question in First Amendment Claims Brought by Public University Professors. NYU Law – Moot Court Board Proceedings. https://proceedings.nyumootcourt.org/2018/02/sustaining-academic-freedom-the-need-to-redefine-the-threshold-question-in-first-amendment-claims-brought-by-public-university-professors/

Shockey, K. (2015). Intellectual freedom is not social justice: The symbolic capital of intellectual freedom in ALA Accreditation and LIS curricula. Proceedings of the 2015 Symposium on LIS Education. https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/handle/2142/78065

Will, M. (2020). Teachers, Politics, and Social Media: A Volatile Mix. Educarion Week. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/03/18/teachers-politics-social-media-a-volatile-mix.html

Featured Image

“Free Speech Doesn’t Mean Careless Talk.” Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services. Ca. 1941-1945 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%22Free_Speech_Doesn%27t_Mean_Careless_Talk%22_-_NARA_-_513606.jpg

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