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Mahar students told to pull messages off Facebook

Were posting in support of suspended teacher

ORANGE — A suspended Mahar teacher who says he was disciplined unfairly now believes school administrators are denying the rights of his students to free speech.

Michael Magee said he heard through several students earlier this week they were reprimanded by school officials after launching a “Free Magee” campaign on Facebook and Twitter protesting the lengthy suspension of their teacher.

“This is certainly a violation of their First Amendment rights,” Magee said.

Magee was suspended by Mahar officials for 21 days without pay. He contends the action was without just cause, in violation of his union contract and the school’s personnel policies.

In his appeal of the administrative action to the Mahar School Committee, Magee said he was unfairly targeted because of his public stance against school K-12 regionalization, an initiative outgoing Superintendent Michael Baldassarre argued passionately for in recent years.

Baldassarre told the Recorder, “It is not professional for the superintendent to make comments to the newspaper on personnel matters.”

Magee, who teaches civics and history at Mahar, argued his students are “following what their consciences are telling them to do” and should not be targeted by school officials for expressing their opinions outside of school.

According to Magee, schools have the right to monitor what students do outside of class time if it may interrupt the school environment, such as when students use social media to bully other students. In this situation, however, he said school officials are “only protecting themselves … from embarrassment” that may result through public discourse about his disciplinary case.

Magee said students told him school officials accessed their private Facebook accounts to see what they were posting.

Magee said one student told him an official presented a print-out of his Facebook page and said there would be consequences if he did not remove it.

The experience of being called out of class to the main office was new to many students participating in the campaign. “They’re afraid” of getting into further trouble with school officials, Magee said.

All the students he spoke with had removed their Facebook pages.

Over a dozen students also participated on the Free Magee Twitter thread earlier this month.

In his civics class at Mahar, Magee said he teaches students “to question … everything they see and hear ... and stand up for what they believe in … that’s what democracy is all about.”

Magee routinely clips newspaper articles about cases related to basic rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. “The Constitution is just a piece of paper ... We have to make it come alive every day … if you don’t protect your own rights, nobody will do it for you.”

Magee’s case will be heard by the School Committee on Monday evening. While he has requested the hearing be open to the public, Baldassarre maintains the hearing will take place in closed executive session. But, according to the state Open Meeting Law, an executive session about disciplinary actions against a public employee must be open to the public if requested by the employee being disciplined.

Magee is obviously correct. I wonder what the school officials are really afraid of.

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