(NEW YORK)— PEN America today called the dismissal of a Wisconsin teacher who tweeted that her class was not allowed to perform “Rainbowland” by Dolly Parton and Miley Cyrus “an extreme and punitive overreaction.”

Waukesha teacher Melissa Tempel spoke with PEN America after the school board voted 9-0 Thursday to fire her. Tempel said she tweeted because she felt the school’s “controversial issues in the classroom” policy had gone too far when it was applied to the song for her first-graders’ spring concert.

“We couldn’t have stickers on our water bottles or our computers that said anything that could be controversial. The way that’s interpreted is very loose. You don’t know what someone’s going to deem controversial. There were no parameters. Black Lives Matter is not political to me, but it definitely is to a lot of other people. So that’s up for interpretation, and that was a very scary thing for teachers,” she said.

Tempel plans to file a federal lawsuit claiming her First Amendment rights were violated. She tweeted outside of work hours, about a matter of public concern over which she has expertise, she said.

Jonathan Friedman, PEN America, director of Free Expression and Education programs, said:

“The dismissal of Melissa Tempel and the contention surrounding her choice to have students sing Rainbowland isn’t happening in isolation. This is merely the latest case in an alarming wave of censorship that is chilling the work of teachers in profound ways. Tempel stands accused of tweeting — in her personal and private capacity — to bring public awareness to a decision in her district to disallow students to sing a song, seemingly because of its inclusive message. Tempel was placed on leave for it– and then later terminated. That is not only an extreme and punitive overreaction; it sends a troubling message to teachers in Wisconsin and across the country not to talk publicly about the censorship they are experiencing. In the long run, that won’t serve today’s students; it will continue to undermine the quality of their education.”

Tempel said at first she thought the educational censorship happening in places like Florida and Texas wouldn’t affect her school, but changes came quickly to her Wisconsin town.

“I think it’s very confusing for kids, because we’ve come so far with the LGBTQ community, and we like to think that there’s less racism. We have a lot of diversity and equity teams and trainings in schools, but those are being systematically eliminated from our schools. I think that’s what it’s mostly about. And that’s where it’s really concerning.”

Tempel said she hopes to return to a classroom, and will continue to speak out about what’s happening in schools.

“I know teachers are looking at my situation and thinking ‘yeah, that’s why we can’t talk about our partner at work,’ or ‘that’s why I can’t share that I went to a Black Lives Matter protest,’ because you’ll get fired. And I really don’t want that to be the narrative, I want the narrative to be that I spoke out because I knew that this was wrong, and I really want my students to have the best. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with any of the things that I’ve said, or any of the things that I do in my classroom. So I’m going to fight it as much as I can.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more visit PEN.org 

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057