Commentary: Russia's repression of teachers has parallel here in New Hampshire

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In March 2022, Vladimir Putin signed a law that punishes public statements contradicting the Russian government’s position that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is merely a “special military operation." It is a prohibited concept in Russia to refer to the “military operation” as a “war” or to say anything critical of it.

The New York Times reported, on April 9, 2022, about an eighth-grade teacher who was turned in for showing her class a video in which Russian and Ukrainian sing a song about a “world without war." The teacher was fined for “publicly discrediting” the Russian Armed Forces and was fired by the school.

David Wolowitz
David Wolowitz

Do not think this could not happen in New Hampshire. Under a recently enacted New Hampshire law, a teacher who engages in classroom discussion about Putin’s behavior toward Ukraine is at risk of losing his or teaching career.

In June 2021, New Hampshire enacted R.S.A 193:40, entitled “Prohibition on Teaching

Discrimination.” It contains a list of four prohibited concepts that may not “be taught” or

“instructed” in any public school. One of the prohibited concepts is “That an individual, by virtue of his or her age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, creed, color, marital status, familial status, mental or physical disability, religion, or national origin, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

Suppose a class engages in a discussion about the war in Ukraine and a student spontaneously criticizes Putin stating that Putin is a war criminal attempting to impose his anti-democratic beliefs on Ukraine. Permitting this discussion would, by my reading, violate the literal language of the New Hampshire statute.

Classroom discussion is part of the educational process. Therefore, students are being “taught” by being part of the classroom discussion about the war in Ukraine, thus triggering the application of the statute.

Given that many world leaders, including our president, have called Putin a war criminal, it would not be unreasonable for a student to state in a classroom discussion about the war in Ukraine that Putin is behaving like a criminal who is determined to impose his anti-democratic beliefs on a democratic country through an oppressive war.

Criticism of Putin as a criminal could be understood to mean that his beliefs are not merely related to the particular circumstances in Ukraine, but rather are an innate, or “inherent”, part of his personality. According to the guidance issued by the state relating to the New Hampshire statute, “inherent” means “characteristics that are natural, biological, or innate, as opposed to characteristics that are merely apparent, accidental, or based on external factors.” Many reasonable people believe that repeated criminal conduct is not accidental, but rather is an innate or inherent characteristic.

Many critics of Putin believe that he is inherently oppressive by virtue of his autocratic, antidemocratic, beliefs or creed. According to Webster’s Dictionary, “creed” is “a set of

fundamental beliefs."

By this analysis, students in a classroom discussion in which a student expresses the opinion that Putin is a war criminal trying to subjugate Ukraine pursuant to his autocratic beliefs are being “taught”… “That an individual,” Putin, “by virtue of his … creed… is inherently… oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” This would be a violation of the New Hampshire law.

The New Hampshire statute does contain an exception. It permits discussing, “as part of a larger course of academic instruction, the historical existence of ideas and subjects identified in this section.” But, a discussion about Putin’s current conduct toward Ukraine would not fall under this exception as it is about current events, not a discussion of the “historical existence of ideas and subjects.”

Some may wonder whether a teacher would realistically be reported under such a scenario.

Although most Americans are supportive of Ukraine and critical of Putin, there are some who remain supportive of Putin. It would be naïve not to recognize that public schools and teachers have become a popular target in the current atmosphere of the culture wars.

Assume under this scenario that a parent who has a positive view of Putin is upset about the classroom discussion. Under the statute, the parent can file a complaint against the teacher.

The statute provides that “Violation of this section by an educator shall be considered a

violation of the educator code of conduct that justifies disciplinary sanction by the state board of education.”

A finding of professional misconduct against an educator for violating the law on students being taught forbidden concepts can result in the loss of one’s teaching credentials. Just defending oneself against such a complaint would be tremendously stressful, time consuming, and costly.

Even if acquitted, a teacher who has been subject to a complaint of professional misconduct may have difficulty finding another teaching position.

Given the language of the existing law in New Hampshire, teachers should consider avoiding the topic of Putin’s role in the war in Ukraine and shutting down any classroom discussion that occurs. Otherwise, teachers face the very real risk of being reported by parents who disagree with the content of the discussion and assert that such discussion is a prohibited concept outlawed by the statute.

It is tragic that here, as in Russia, our teachers must be careful when discussing the current events in Ukraine to avoid any discussions which possibly could be interpreted by a parent as their child being taught concepts that are forbidden by the state. In Ukraine, citizens are sacrificing their lives to protect their freedoms. We must be careful not to take our rights for granted, lest they slip away.

David Wolowitz has been a practicing attorney in New Hampshire since 1975. He has a national and international practice advising schools on educational practices. He is a frequent speaker at national conferences and has written many articles. He currently serves as an expert witness in education matters nationwide.

This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Commentary: Russia's repression of teachers has parallel here in NH