Wisconsin teacher fired in free speech scandal over Miley Cyrus rainbow song: ‘It’s really scary’

A teacher’s tweet questioning why her school rejected a Miley Cyrus song about rainbows spiraled into a larger conversation about free speech and diversity in public education, Josh Marcus reports

Friday 04 August 2023 23:56 BST
Wisconsin teacher plans to file lawsuit against school
Wisconsin teacher plans to file lawsuit against school (Melissa Tempel)

Even before she was fired this month amid a scandal over suggesting students should sing a song about rainbows, Wisconsin teacher Melissa Tempel had her concerns that the School District of Waukesha might not be the place for her.

Ms Tempel, who is half-Korean and teaches elementary school dual-language immersion classes, says her childhood experiences and research into race and education made her put a special emphasis on making all children feel welcome.

“I knew what it felt like to be different and to have that strange veil of, you don’t quite fit in here,” she told The Independent. “So I’ve always been very empathetic to other people who might be experiencing marginalisation.”

However, with each passing year at Heyer Elementary School, which sits in a conservative part of the state, she felt school officials seeming to go out of their way to make pupils feel less welcome.

In 2021, school leadership banned teachers from displaying signs that might be interpreted as political. As examples, school officials cited everything from specific movement-related materials like Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter placards, to seemingly more anodyne signs declaring classrooms to be safe spaces. The policy led one teacher to be suspended for putting up an LGBTQ+ Pride flag.

In 2022, the same year conservatives backed by local, state, and national Republican groups swept school board elections, officials revised their “controversial issues” policy, which forbid teachers’ actions that “may be the subject of intense public argument, disagreement or disapproval,” “may have political, social or personal impacts” or “is likely to arouse both support and opposition in the community.” Then, this January, the school board decided students could not change their name or pronouns at school without parental permission.

Wisconsin teacher plans to file lawsuit against school (Melissa Tempel)

Ms Tempel became particularly alarmed, she said, when teachers were warned they couldn’t have signage declaring their classrooms to be anti-racist spaces.

“Those policies make kids feel less and less secure, just like they make teachers feel less and less welcome,” Ms Tempel said.

“I was scared s***less to be honest,” she added. “Not scared in fear, but as in, what is happening to this place? Why would you say that? Why is that an OK thing for anybody to say? It’s weird, right?”

The weirdness would only continue. Soon, she would be making national headlines alongside Miley Cyrus, be followed on Twitter by Barack Obama, then lose her job, the latest casualty to the culture wars playing out across US classrooms.

Wisconsin teacher said schools rejection of Miley Cyrus song was ‘ridiculous’ (Getty Images for The Recording A)

In March, Ms Tempel started discussing with her fellow teachers what song her first graders should sing at an upcoming spring concert. One of her colleagues suggested a Miley Cyrus-Dolly Parton duet called “Rainbowland,” a song with an inclusive message and lyrics like “Wouldn’t it be nice to live in paradise / Where we’re free to be exactly who we are.”

School officials rejected the suggestion, later saying that they worried the song would be associated with explicit lyrics and images from Cyrus’s other work.

Ms Tempel found the rejection somewhat baffling, but since she hadn’t suggested the song in the first place, and because she had plenty else to do as a teacher, she didn’t voice these concerns with the administration at first.

She did, however, post about it on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, that month, which touched off the firestorm that ultimately cost her her job.

“My first graders were so excited to sing Rainbowland for our spring concert but it has been vetoed by our administration,” she wrote, tagging the school district, Parton, Cyrus, and the Department of Justice’s civil rights division. “When will it end?”

“I was trying to raise awareness,” she said of the tweet. “Look at how ridiculous this controversial content policy has become. What’s going to be next?”

She said was amazed that a school district would be worried about a song with a message as “innocent and beautiful” as “Rainbowland.”

Debate in Waukesha schools over gender and political signs come as states like Florida seek to ban inclusive books and restrict diversity and inclusion programmes (Getty/AP)

The message got the attention of school officials, who launched an investigation and put the teacher on leave. In the meantime, Ms Tempel says she was hit with hate online, with commenters accusing her of being a “groomer,” a term, as The Independent has reported, which conservatives across the country have adopted and used to attack LBGTQ+ people and their allies.

In April, Dr Jill Underly, Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction, wrote a letter to the Waukesha superintendent, arguing the district was “under the guise of protection, causing undue harm to students and staff.”

“As district leaders, you can choose to re-evaluate the decision to place a district employee on administrative leave and, instead, recognize that ‘acknowledging the rights of [the district’s] professional staff members as citizens in a democratic society’ is, in fact, in the best interests of the School District of Waukesha,” she wrote.

In the meantime, the school district said it was being bombarded with hundreds of hateful messages and threats of its own, causing them to increase police presence at Heyer.

In May, following an internal investigation, the district superintendent recommended Ms Tempel be fired, arguing she expressed her discontent in an “inappropriate” and “disruptive” way.

Two months later, Ms Tempel and the school board squared off in a public hearing, where protesters on both sides of the debate about school culture turned out in force.

Dave Dringenburg of Alliance for Education in Waukesha told The Washington Post the school’s seemingly conservative turn “aren’t truly representative of the opinions of a majority of Waukesha residents” and have led “the district to years of disruption in our schools and community.”

“It seems like the board’s decision concerning Ms Tempel’s employment, much like their previous decisions regarding safe space signage and lunch program issues, aren’t truly representative of the opinions of a majority of Waukesha residents,” Dave Dringenburg of Alliance for Education in Waukesha, told the Post. “While Ms Tempel was terminated in part for being ‘disruptive,’ the board’s inconsistent implementation of policy has led the district to years of disruption in our schools and community.”

Melissa Tempel plans to file a lawsuit over her firing (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel broadcast screengrab)

Others disagreed.

"The fact that they’re willing to take a stand and be like ‘OK, if one of our teachers is not going to be in line with the way that we are running our school district and she’s going to be promoting the LGBTQ agenda in her classroom and things like that, them taking a stand against that is encouraging because most school districts won’t take a stand against that," demonstrator Marcus Schroeder told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "I want to show that if there’s a school board willing to take a stand on these issues, that I’m here to support them as well, because there’s not very many of them left."

At the hearing, the school claimed it received "hundreds of emails, calls, voicemails, many of which contained vulgar, obscene and threatening language” related to Ms Tempel’s tweet, though she says she was only presented with evidence of a few incidents, and hasn’t been able to access more of the underlying evidence used against her.

Meanwhile, Ms Tempel and her lawyer argued that the tweet was a protected exercise of the teacher’s First Amendment rights, in the form of comments made after hours and outside the presence of her students.

“Despite allegations otherwise, the Board’s decision was not based upon any prohibited basis, particularly Ms. Tempel’s right to free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution,” the district told The Independent in a statement. “The Board found that Ms. Tempel did not follow Board Policy on multiple accounts, which resulted in considerable disruption to the District. The decision of the Board was not about any particular song, that may or may not have been selected for a concert, but the process by which an employee goes about expressing their concerns in a productive manner in accordance with Board Policy.”

The teacher plans to file a lawsuit against the district.

The blowup in Waukesha is the latest in a series of clashes at schools across the country over issues about race, gender, and culture.

In recent years, state and federal politicians have teamed up with grassroots activists to turn school boards, athletic leagues, and curriculum policies from sleepy local affairs into highly charged political battlegrounds.

As The Independent has reported, Texas has implemented book ban policies disproportionately used to cut out books featuring perspectives from people of colour and LGBTQ+ authors, while Florida approved bills banning diversity programmes at colleges and restricting students from using their preferred gender pronouns.

The new restrictions take place as GOP-controlled states nationwide limit or outright ban young people’s access to gender-affirming medical care.

As for Ms Tempel, she feels she’s been punished for doing “what I know is right for kids,” and she warns that the sort of highly charged education debate that caused her firing could take place anywhere.

“We’re banning books,” she said. “We’re removing signage that promotes inclusivity. We’re asking teachers to teach without any autonomy. We’re putting fear into teachers so that they are afraid to speak about any topic that could be perceived as controversial. It’s really scary.”

“This is something that could easily happen in a district in California if people aren’t paying attention,” she adds. “Wisconsin is a flip-flopping state, but we definitely aren’t a place where anyone thought this could happen.”

In 2023, it’s safe to say many teachers and students don’t feel they’re living in Rainbowland, that paradise where we’re free to be exactly who we are.

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