clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Florida teacher’s racist podcast was uncovered. Can she argue it was free speech?

The Constitution might not be on Dayanna Volitich’s side on this one.

Ian Waldie/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

A Florida middle school teacher who allegedly hosted a white nationalist podcast has been pulled from the classroom as the school district investigates the claims.

HuffPost first reported the bizarre story, that Dayanna Volitich, a 25-year-old social studies teacher at Crystal River Middle School in Western Florida hosted a white nationalist podcast Unapologetic under the alias “Tiana Dalichov.” The news outlet made the inference based on information posted online by Dalichov that matched Volitich’s biographical details. Volitich’s school profile picture also matched a profile photo on the Dalichov Twitter account, which has since been deleted.

According to HuffPost reporters Christopher Mathias, Jenna Amatulli, and Rebecca Klein, Volitich bragged on a February 26 podcast about introducing some of her racist views into the classroom in an interview with alt-right figure Lana Lokteff.

In the same episode, Volitich boasted about bringing her white nationalist beliefs into the classroom and hiding her ideology from administrators. She said that when parents complained to the school’s principal about how she is injecting political bias into the classroom, Volitich lied to the principal and said it was not true.

“She believed me and backed off,” she said.

Volitich also posted racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim rhetoric on social media under the Dalichov alias, HuffPost reported. “It isn’t supremacist or hateful to prefer your own people over others,” she wrote on Twitter in February.

The Citrus County School District relieved Volitich from her teaching duties as it investigates, according to a statement from schools superintendent Sandra Himmel. (The district declined to comment further to Vox because of the investigation.)

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Citrus County School District Superintendent of Schools, Sandra “Sam” Himmel On Friday, March 2,...

Posted by Citrus County School District on Sunday, March 4, 2018

In a statement provided by her attorney to NBC News, Volitich did not deny participating in the podcast or posting on social media under the Dalichov alias, but said she used “political satire and exaggeration.”

Volitich rebutted claims that she had tried to convey white supremacist ideas to her students. “The views ‘Tiana Dalichov’ espouses do not pervade my professional career,” she said in the statement, according to NBC News. “As an adult, my decisions are my own, and my family has nothing whatsoever to do with my social media accounts or my podcast. From them, I humbly ask for forgiveness, as it was never my intention to cause them grief while engaging in a hobby on my personal time.”

But a parent of one of Volitich’s students said the teacher had interjected her white nationalist ideology into her social studies lessons. “They were talking about segregation in a civil rights-type of capacity, and the teacher somewhat alluded that segregation might possibly be OK in her opinion,” the parent, Meredith Bleakley, told NBC News.

Volitich’s status as a public school teacher comes with certain free-speech protections. The Supreme Court has ruled that First Amendment rights “don’t stop at the schoolhouse gates” for students and teachers, as Jessica Clarke, professor of constitutional law at the University of Minnesota, told Vox.

“But,” she added, “there are caveats.”

The Constitution probably isn’t on Volitich’s side

The school district is investigating Volitich based on these reports and has removed her from the classroom. Volitich likely isn’t the first teacher to espouse alternative, controversial, or even abhorrent views. But Volitich, under her alter ego “Tiana Dalichov,” is said to have bragged about sliding racist views into her lesson plans — and that might be her downfall.

A private employer could probably easily fire Volitich, but as a public school teacher, the circumstances are bit more complex. As Clarke explained, the Supreme Court has found that both students and teachers do not forfeit their First Amendment rights just because they’re on school property.

Teachers and students maintain their right to speak freely on matters of public concern, including social and political issues, without fear of losing their government job or disciplinary action by the school. And whether white supremacist and racist ideologies are a matter of “public concern,” Clarke said, is a debate courts are generally loath to take up.

“While it might be dangerously wrong or horrible to democracy, it’s hard to draw that line, to say what speech is right and what speech is wrong,” Clarke said. “And the First Amendment is resistant to that.”

Here’s where that caveat to free-speech protections comes in: “The court will balance her interest in speaking out in a public concern against the school’s interest in making sure that it can function efficiently and effectively,” Clarke said.

So limits to an educator’s speech are allowable if it impedes a school’s ability to do its job. In this case, of course, many would argue that spreading white nationalist rhetoric grossly interferes with a school’s responsibility to educate its students.

“Teachers don’t have a First Amendment right to determine the content of their lessons,” Clarke said. “Schools can tell them what to teach. Schools can and should tell them not to teach racist stuff.”

Kerri L. Stone, an employment law professor at Florida International University, said that all public employees face this balancing test that “weighs your right to speak and add to the marketplace of ideas versus the employer’s interest,” which in this case is providing a public education.

The school’s interests will likely win out if the district’s investigation confirms Volitich tried to promote white nationalistic ideas among her students. It’s a trickier scenario if Volitich, as she said in the statement to NBC News, ensured her outside views “do not pervade my professional career.”

Though it’s a less clear-cut case, Clarke suggested such viewpoints could be shown to interfere with Volitich’s work in other ways — for example, it might indicate she would not be able to teach or grade her students fairly because of her racial views. “It’s a harder one to argue that she’s not going to be able to work fairly with people of different background,” Clarke said. “But I also think that’s a reason to fire her.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.