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Jac Wilder VerSteeg: Miami principal inept but didn’t deserve ouster

“He did nothing wrong. He was afraid for his life. I commend him for his actions.”

Those words were, in effect, Alberto Iber’s resignation letter.

The Miami high school principal – excuse me, the former Miami high school principal – posted those fateful words online on a Miami Herald comment page. Iber was defending the actions last week of the white cop in McKinney, Texas, who drew his pistol on black kids at a pool party gone wild and then wrestled a 15-year-old bikini-clad black girl to the ground and knelt on her.

Iber’s defense of Eric Casebolt, who quickly resigned from the police force, led to Iber’s rapid removal from his job as principal of North Miami Senior High School, which has a student body that’s 99 percent minority.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, quoted in the Miami Herald, cited Iber’s “insensitivity” as he lowered the boom.

“Judgment is the currency of honesty,” Carvalho said. “Insensitivity – intentional or perceived – is both unacceptable and inconsistent with our policies, but more importantly with our expectation of common sense behavior that elevates the dignity and humanity of all, beginning with children.”

Iber has said that he intended to post the comment anonymously. Instead, he posted it – presumably accidentally – accompanied by his Facebook picture and his job description.

Oops.

So Iber has proven himself inept at social media technology and out of step with mainstream America’s opinion on the Texas outrage. Neither of those should be a firing offense. He didn’t deserve to be demoted.

Iber did not post pictures of himself scantily clad or guzzling alcohol. He did not use profanity or offensive terms. His comments were not long enough to constitute a full argument, but they posited a plausible defense of the cop. He was afraid for his life. It’s hard for me to see how that could be true, given the cop’s edge in lethal firepower, but Iber appears to truly believe it.

Iber’s removal raises fundamental freedom-of-speech issues. He was not ousted for anything he said or did on campus. Should educators – or students – get in trouble for things they say outside of school?

That issue gets very complex very quickly. A teacher or administrator who is arrested for actions outside of school – say repeated drunken driving or possession of illegal drugs – reasonably could face discipline from the school district. There comes a point where their actions undermine the profession and their professional standing.

But at what point should a teacher’s opinions, expressed on Facebook for example, provoke professional punishment? They haven’t done anything except say something. And this is America.

For students, the issue is even murkier. They don’t have a professional standing. Should they be able to go online and criticize their teachers and their school? At what point should the school act when students go online to torment their peers? The bullying takes place outside of school, but it obviously infects the school setting as well.

Pervasive social media will only make such entanglements more common and perplexing. The vicious, anything goes nature of online commenting is bound to make school officials think they need to act, but how can they cite authority for becoming Internet speech police?

Compared to that vicious cyberspace forum, Iber’s comments seem even more tame. Ousting him is the wrong move in any case. Use his embarrassment to prompt discussion – on the high school campus – of the dangers of social media in addition to the difficult issues of race relations that the Texas incident and too many other recent examples have raised.
Unfettered speech is bound to provoke controversy. The solution is not to punish speech but to promote freedom of discussion.

Jac Wilder VerSteeg is a columnist for The South Florida Sun Sentinel, former deputy editorial page editor for The Palm Beach Post and former editor of Context Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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