Fired St. Louis Teacher Wins National Acclaim

By Jeannette Batz, The Riverfront Times

Words affect everybody differently.

Ferguson-Florissant School District fired writing teacher Cissy Lacks because of profanity used by her eleventh-grade students in videotapes aboutÏdrugs, gangs and teen pregnancy.

Now Paul Newman’s giving her an award for supporting the First Amendment.

He will present the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award to Lacks this Thursday at Lincoln Center. Novelist Julia Alvarez, one of the five judges who selected Lacks, said, “She’s turned a difficult occasion into an opportunity to further educate her students, future teachers and others as to the importance of self-expression, particularly in public education.”

For Lacks, the award’s impact — for all teachers, she stresses — is to lessen “this fear that somebody could at some point just come get you for nothing. When people like Paul Newman and these judges say, ‘Look, there is only one side to this story, and teachers have to be teaching self-expression’ — that takes away some of the fear. Because I think they will keep watching.”

PEN American Center is a branch of PEN, an international organization of writers that defends freedom of expression. The other four judges for the $25,000 award were Human Rights Watch Associate Director Gara LaMarche and authors Edward Albee, Caroline Kennedy and Jessica Mitford.

Lacks is challenging her dismissal in federal court.