Freedom of speech in the classroom

The challenge is this: to create and maintain an environment in which people can speak freely.

It doesn’t seem terribly difficult does it?  Americans are accustomed to free expression.  We share our opinions with few reservations, and if we don’t like what we hear from others, we can always change the channel.

But this challenge is different.  The free speech environment we need to create is within the walls of a classroom.  We can’t just leave if we don’t like it.  And we can’t overcome our discomfort simply by suppressing expression that bothers us.  We need to maintain an environment, an enclosed environment, in which people can speak freely.  That is easier said than done.

So why go to all the trouble?  There is a reason schools and classrooms are typically maintained as spaces where behavior is under tight control.  It’s easier that way.  If there is disorder, it is clear who the authority figure is, and what the solution to the “problem” will be – almost always some variation of sit down and shut up.

But there is something deeply incongruous about teaching children civil liberties in an environment that is innately authoritarian and repressive.  Freedom is not something that can be learned in the abstract – it must be practiced.

And it is not like the only alternative to authoritarian control is chaos.  Americans have been working on finding a balance between order and liberty since the country began.  We generally agree that shouting “fire” in a crowded room with limited exits is a form of expression that might cause real physical harm to others, and may be punished by law without violating the principle of free speech.  But we acknowledge that in circumstances where physical harm would not likely result, anyone has the right to startle others, to mislead, even to lie.  We have accepted court decisions that carved out restrictions on free speech for “fighting words” and obscenity.  But in the war of ideas, we have generally stood back and taken the position – let the best idea win.

Students of American government need to understand not just the rights we are entitled to exercise, and not just the reasonable limitations on those rights, but also the reasons for those limitations.

Students need to understand that there is a difference between democratic government – in which the people’s voices are heard on the way to a consensus formed by a popular vote, and free speech – in which the goal is not consensus but rather acceptance of disagreement.

So I am going to suggest something radical in the context of a traditional American classroom.  Put the students in charge and let them figure it out themselves.  Establish a few ground rules – but very few.  No speech that causes physical harm to anyone.  No speech that singles out an individual as a target (we are dealing with children, after all, and we don’t want to protect bullying).  No speech that is intended primarily to be offensive, obscene, or insulting to anyone in the room.  This takes us into territory that is somewhat subjective, but that is nothing to shy away from.  Every community has its own standards, and establishing rules of decorum is one way societies define themselves.

Students should choose from among themselves a moderator for the discussion, or devise rules for an orderly exchange of ideas.  It is essential that students maintain their own system of rules for the conversation.  That is part of the learning experience – navigating between freedom and order.

Teachers should have little role to play.  In fact, the less role they play the better.  But since verbal communication is a skill that schools are expected to teach, encouraging students to practice those skills and helping students to articulate ideas is worthwhile and extremely pertinent to the exercise.  To that end it is good to have an expert in the room.  The usual authority figure is thus set in a support role, stepping in to control things only if the discussion gets out of hand and students can’t seem to hold to their agreed-upon rules.  Imagine – the teacher simply teaches, while the students play the role of policeman.

Because this configuration of order and authority is untraditional, it may take some practice to get it working.  Much depends on the existing climate and expectations of the school.  But the rewards are immeasurable, and the stakes are extraordinarily high.

Freedom of speech, like other civil liberties, is part of a negotiation between individual rights and social responsibilities.  The only way we can expect children to understand their rights, and to take their responsibilities seriously, is to give them an opportunity to practice them.

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Freedom of speech, and the lessons we teach

Human Rights Watch in its World Report 2016 stated that governments around the world are suppressing free speech in order to eliminate tools for terrorist organizations as well as to tamp down political dissent.[1]  In this American election year, office-seekers as well as policy-makers are calling for the shutting down of Islamist websites that are deemed to be security threats.[2]

In the United States, every child in Civics class is expected to learn that the 1st Amendment to the Constitution guarantees us the right to speak our minds, to assemble peaceably, and to petition the government for the redress of our grievances.  We want our children to know about our constitutional rights, and we have enshrined this knowledge in the basic curriculum we expect our schools to teach.

We learn these rights in the abstract – we see them in shaded text boxes in our textbooks or maybe written on posters on the classroom walls. We learn about them in an environment in which we may be punished for speaking without raising our hand first to ask for permission.

We learn about free speech, but what is the role of American public schools in promoting free speech?

Is it a coincidence that the place we have designated to explain the relationship between individual liberties and governmental power is an institution in which individual expression is sharply limited in favor of order and conformity?  Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the content of the message can overcome the medium in which it is presented.

Context can frame perception.  I came to teaching after three years of law school and a year of working with lawyers and political activists who daily navigated the war zone between laws and freedoms. I engaged my middle school students with hypothetical dilemmas in which they were charged with resolving disputes and conflicts in a way that seemed fair and equitable.  I was surprised to discover a definite pattern in their answers.

Surprised in large part because middle school defines an age in which children normally begin to test authority and define their own individuality.  But in devising a solution to disputes involving hypothetical others, these students invariably wanted a strong authority figure to step in and impose order.  It was striking how little faith they seemed to have in individuals to find acceptable resolutions for themselves.  But in a sense, it was not surprising at all.  The only environment most of them had ever know that allowed them social interaction with large numbers of their peers also severely restricted every aspect of their behavior.

School teaches the lesson of order even when it fails to teach English, or science, or math.  School teaches a version of Civics that is weighted heavily towards compliance, and teaches appreciation of liberty as an abstraction – not an everyday reality.

Is this what we really want – for our liberties to be effectively neutered as soon as they are taken out of the box?  Or do we want schools to teach students how to express themselves – politically, creatively, perhaps even offensively?

How much tolerance do we really have for individual expression in such a complex and interdependent society?  How much freedom are we comfortable allowing for genuine dissent in an age that is marked by a fear of terrorism?  Do we want our schools to teach the meaning of our civil rights instead of just the words on a page?  Are we willing to use our freedom of speech to demand it?

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Freedom of speech from the heart

Anthony Hill was 27 years old when he was shot and killed by police officer Robert Olsen.  The victim was an Air Force veteran, discharged after he was diagnosed as bipolar, struggling to make peace with the horrors he had witnessed in Afghanistan, dealing with the side effects of his medication.  Officer Olsen most likely did not know any of this when he encountered Anthony Hill on March 9, 2015.  We will never know for certain what thoughts crossed his mind.  It may be up to a jury evaluating the testimony of witnesses to decide the exact sequence of events.  But we do know that Olsen saw a naked and unarmed man walking around a suburban apartment complex, then drew his gun and killed him.

And we know that Officer Olsen is white, and Anthony Hill was black – yet another black man killed by police, another American “problem” solved by a gun.  This time there was a twist.  The person diagnosed with a mental disability was not the one pulling the trigger, but rather the person who ended up lying bleeding on the ground.

On Monday of last week, a group of determined individuals, backed by the Black Lives Matter movement and Rise Up Georgia, began a vigil on the grounds of the DeKalb County courthouse, where a grand jury was meeting to consider indicting Robert Olsen for murder.  The participants camped on the lawn for three nights, despite occasional rain and frigid nighttime temperatures dropping below 20° – unusually cold for a Georgia winter.

I heard that some local college students had been encouraged to visit the demonstration and to ask questions of the participants.  I was curious what they would think about what they discovered, and even more curious what the participants thought about what they were doing.

As an American history teacher, I have always tried to expose my students to perspectives from outside the mainstream, and to show them how individual and collective action has many times resulted in fundamental changes in American society.  I have tried to get them to understand the protections of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, and its implied mandate to take a stand, speak one’s conscience, and agitate for needed change.

But it is easier to teach these lessons in hindsight.  The abolitionist movement forced the issue of slavery to a resolution.  The labor movement succeeded in bringing about the end of child labor and the legal protection of collective bargaining.  The women’s suffrage movement gained the right to vote for women.  The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought about the passage of landmark legislation that finally made good on the promise of the 14th and 15th amendments.

It is not so easy to teach lessons about the value of public pressure for reforms not yet realized.  Economic oppression, violence, sexism, racism – major issues for American society with no answers in sight.  Where is the cause-and-effect relationship between today’s activists and the solutions to these problems?

I asked participants in the demonstration what they hoped to accomplish.  Every person I asked said that they wanted Officer Olsen to be indicted – it would be the first time since 2010 that a police officer would be charged for the death of a civilian.  But every person also denied that they were there to influence the grand jury.  They wanted the process to work, not just to be another finger on the scale of justice.

So who did they want to influence, and to what end?

Some told me about a proposal to require additional training for police in dealing with the mentally ill.  Some wanted 911 operators to have training to recognize a mental health crisis as distinct from a criminal event, and to have appropriate experts trained and ready to call to the scene.

Most of the demonstrators said they simply wanted to create awareness of the case.  I asked them what they wanted to do with that awareness.  Now that you have their attention, what are you going to do with it?  What is your call to action?  What is a positive outcome that could rise above the tragic particulars of this case and make Anthony Hill’s death – and your sacrifice in being here in the freezing cold – worthwhile?

Quite a few of the people I spoke with struggled to answer those questions.  Some of them refused outright.  One accused me of being condescending for even asking.  And that was, I think, a perfectly fair response.  My perspective in asking was that there should be a call to action – an outcome that went beyond the death of Anthony Hill.

But for many who were there, their presence was a simple but meaningful expression of solidarity, of grief, of comfort among friends and strangers who felt the same way when they heard that yet another black man had lost his life far too early.  The positive outcome was embodied in their being on that courthouse lawn.  Anthony Hill was not forgotten; his life did have value.  No matter what happens next, this is how we feel today.  And we stand together.

Perhaps that was the most important statement that could have been made.

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Freedom of speech versus the criminal consequences

 

SPAC flyer 4-19 cropped

It was called SPAC, which stood for “student political action club.  I never much cared for the name.  It seemed to lack poetry and wit.  It didn’t inspire imagination like “Black Panthers” or “Weather Underground,” or evoke authority like “Federalist Society.”  In fact, my main aesthetic objection to the name was that it was just too on-the-nose.  But it certainly was self-descriptive, and the acronym had kind of a cartoonish percussive quality when spoken out loud – which I think is why the students liked it.

It was 2005, two years into the war in Iraq.  No weapons of mass destruction had been found, but evidence of U.S. military personnel torturing Iraqi prisoners had been all over the news.  Soldiers were coming back from Iraq and speaking out against U.S. militarism.  The “No Child Left Behind Act,” which was intended to reform public education, also required schools to turn over to military recruiters home contact information for students.

Several of my AP US History students came to me to ask if I would sponsor their club.  Having a sponsor and official status at the school would enable them to hold after-school meetings in the building and post flyers to generate more interest.

I was supportive of their desire to be more involved in the world outside of their school.  I believed their interest was sincere.  Some of them, I was aware, had participated in a large anti-war march in downtown Atlanta back in 2002, before the invasion of Iraq had even begun.  As a social studies teacher, I had tried to help my students see that the course of history is not inevitable, but rather was affected by individuals.  I tried to teach in a way that would communicate my passionate interest in public issues, while maintaining a classroom atmosphere in which all opinions would be welcome.

When I agreed to help them, I made it clear that I would not be a participant in any of their activities.  I would help them comply with the school’s rules and help them find information that they might need.  Almost immediately, I was asked to explain the concept of civil disobedience.  I told them that it was a deliberate violation of the laws, undertaken as a protest, with no attempt to evade responsibility for their actions, and with the understanding that the full weight of punishment might come down on their heads.  They asked about the consequences of breaking school rules, and I tried to explain what I thought might happen in various scenarios.  In retrospect, it was one of those moments a teacher can savor – when students take information presented in an instructional setting and apply it in real life.  But that application would come a little later.

SPAC lasted for a little over a year, as I recall.  Like a lot of student-created endeavors, it was fed by the enthusiasm of its founders, and when they graduated or moved on to other interests the organization withered and died.  But during its run, SPAC staged a memorial action on the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by asking students to wear a black armband at school, and participated in several street demonstrations.[1]

Perhaps most significantly, the group staged its own act of civil disobedience by encouraging a hundred or so kids to walk out of class during the last period of the day in protest of the war in Iraq. As expected, the action generated awareness about the war, interest in student activism, and resulted in after-school detention for large numbers of students.

For many years, there has been a debate about the nature and value of student activism on campus.  Most recently, some colleges have come under fire for allegedly suppressing speech that was deemed to be offensive while defenders claimed that theirs was a valid opposing viewpoint unjustly targeted for censorship.  I have no intention of weighing in on this debate.  But I will state enthusiastically that the debate is important. Freedom of speech has limits (see the last two posts on this blog), but the interplay of content and venue is subject to negotiation in a nation that makes laws through a democratic process.  And schools are the ideal places to carry out such a debate.

There is more to civic education than memorizing the powers of government from a flow chart.  Teaching generations of students that ours is the best system ever devised inspires complacency.  Self-government requires participation.  Making the process work ruffles feathers.

About a year and a half ago, I received an email invitation to a reception for a local woman who had been arrested and jailed during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011-2012.  She had gone to New York to protest the corruption of the the financial institutions that had caused the economic collapse of 2008.  During her incarceration, she had become so concerned about the welfare of her fellow inmates that she took up the cause of prisoner’s rights.  Now she was out of Riker’s Island, appealing her conviction, and the reception was a fundraiser to help with her legal expenses.[2]

Cecily McMillan had been a student in my AP US History class, a star witness on the school’s mock trial team, and an active member of SPAC.  She had been one of those kids who, even at age 16, was infused with a kind of restless energy.  Unforgettable.  But I went to the reception not sure how she would react to seeing one of her former teachers there.

I couldn’t have been more pleased with her reaction.  She told me how important SPAC had been in framing her political consciousness.  How nervous she had been on the day of the walk-out, and how that experience had emboldened her.  She gave me more credit than I think I deserved for inspiring her courage.  All I did was give a few students some information, and tell them that taking responsibility for their own actions is a good thing.  If they believed in a cause, and understood the consequences of their actions, there was no reason to be afraid, and every reason to be proud of themselves.

In fact, this is a lesson every child should learn as he or she grows up, whether from supportive parents, teachers, or other mentors.  Many good people have fought and died for our right to fight amongst ourselves – and not only to find our own voices but also to shout from the rooftops.

How grateful I am that a handful of students came to me in the Spring of 2005 to remind me of that fact.

_______

[1] http://atlantaprogressivenews.com/2006/09/01/youth-rally-for-impeachment-in-atlanta/ 

[2] There are a number of websites with information about Cecily.  Here are three:  http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/cecily-mcmillan-from-zuccotti-park-to-rikers  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/cecily-mcmillan-occupy-wall-street/  http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/24920-released-occupy-activist-cecily-mcmillan-theres-no-sense-in-prison

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Freedom of speech – the back of the book

Can freedom of speech – even hateful speech promoting violence – be suppressed without violating the First Amendment to the Constitution?  In my last post, I asked this question, gave a short tutorial, and then presented a story that contained a series of hypothetical situations in which the freedom of speech was threatened.  It was a take-home quiz, and if you haven’t taken it, go to last week’s post and do your homework before you come back to class.

Now it is time to reveal the answers.

The Story

Flatjack Woofer believed that the world was flat.  He was concerned that many people were being misled by the teachers in school and by the media.  He decided to do something about it.

  1. Flatjack went down to the local public park and looked for a crowd. Spotting a soccer game, he walked out onto the field and turned to address the small crowd of parents and supporters.  “Turn away from the dangerous and unproven theory of terrestrial sphericality,” he said in a loud, clear speaking voice.  “Just look around you and you’ll see . . . .”  But he was cut off and knocked to the ground by a soccer ball hitting him on the side of the head.  (The game had continued even though he was standing on the playing field.)  He awoke to find himself being dragged away by a local policeman.  “You can’t come here and just make a speech in the middle of a game,” the cop said.  “Come back tomorrow when the kids are gone.  Now, beat it!”  The policeman dropped the dazed Flatjack by the side of the road.

The player who hit Flatjack in the head certainly curtained his freedom of speech – but didn’t violate his constitutional rights.  The crowd of spectators could have joined the players in running Flatjack off the field entirely without violating his constitutional rights.  The First Amendment protects us from actions by the government, not by private individuals.  And because the policeman was an agent of the government, he was obligated to respect Flatjack’s freedom of speech.  But short of denying him the right to speak altogether, the policeman could require Flatjack to pick an alternative “time, place, or manner” in which to convey his message.  The policeman acted constitutionally. 

  1. Flatjack was undeterred. He went to the local television station and sneaked in the back door when the janitor stepped out to smoke a cigarette.  Flatjack made his way onto the set of the 5:00 news show and jumped in front of the camera.  “Turn away from the dangerous and unproven theory of terrestrial sphericality,” he said. A weather reporter tackled him and wrestled him to the ground.

The reporter was acting on his own, or perhaps on behalf of his employer – the television station.  Neither of these is a government actor.  Flapjack’s constitutionl rights were not violated.

  1. Flatjack squirmed away and ran. The news director called the police.  Flatjack dashed outside and almost collided with the assistant to the associate director.  Startled and out of breath, Flatjack shouted out “You’re a damned fascist!”  The police arrived just at that moment and arrested Flatjack under the local ordinance banning “offensive, derisive, or annoying” words uttered in public.

The police arrested Flatjack and charged him with a crime in which the criminal act was a particular kind of speech.  This set of circumstances should alert us to a potential constitutional violation.  But in this instance, the words Flatjack spoke fall under the “fighting words” exception to the freedom of speech.  In 1942, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a street preacher who had verbally abused a police while under arrest.  The Court held that utterances that tend to cause an immediate breach of the peace have no social value that outweighs society’s interest in order and morality, and so they may be outlawed without violating the Constitution.[1]

  1. Flatjack did not stay in jail for long. The television station declined to press charges, and instead developed a series of reports on the mental health crisis, featuring video of Flatjack raving in front of the camera.  Flatjack was disappointed that he did not get his day in court, and began to plan a rally to express his views.  He applied for a permit to speak in the park and printed up flyers that read, “As seen on TV – Flatjack Woofer speaks the truth about the ‘Round Earth’ Conspiracy.”  He posted these flyers everywhere he could, even covering the bulletin boards in the courthouse that usually announced the docket of cases that would be heard that day.  One of the judges whose bulletin board he covered was not amused, and issued a bench warrant for Flatjack’s arrest.

Obviously, a judge is a government actor, and ordering Flatjack’s arrest for posting flyers is a suppression of speech.  But in this instance, the judge’s actions fall under another exception to the First Amendment.  Speech may be suppressed if it unreasonably interferes with a government activity.  This is why public school teachers (government employees) may require their students to be quiet in class.

  1. Meanwhile, Flatjack was beside himself with excitement about the rally. On the big day, he stepped to the podium and began to whip the crowd into a frenzy with his impassioned words.  Halfway through his prepared speech, Flatjack spotted his high school Geography teacher strolling through the park at a distance.  Flatjack became enraged and screamed at the crowd, “There’s one of them now!  That man is a liar!  His victims are innocent children!  Show him what you think of his evil deception!”  Several members of the crowd ran over to the unsuspecting teacher and began to hit and kick him.  The police closed in and arrested the rioters.  Flatjack was also arrested and charged with orchestrating the attack on the teacher.

The government may outlaw speech that creates a “clear and present danger” that they will bring about actions that society has a right to prevent.  Inciting an attack on an innocent bystander certainly falls within this exception to protected speech.[2]

How did you do on the quiz?  Don’t worry if you missed a few.  Civil rights are tricky.  We have been working on them for over 200 years, and we still have lots of room for improvement.

______________

[1] Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942) 315 U.S. 568

[2] Schenck v. United States (1919) 249 U.S. 470

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Freedom of speech – a lesson (and a quiz)

In the wake of terrorist attacks and reports of active recruiting through the internet, some public figures have recently called for the suppression of Islamist websites.[1]  The use of the internet to promote hatred and support violence is not new.  The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups have been organizing through websites and chat rooms for years.  But the sense of urgency with recent highly publicized acts of violence, the complex and deadly war in parts of the Middle East, and the current election cycle in the United States, have prompted some to demand that the U.S. government to step in.

But what, if anything, should the government do?  Can freedom of speech – even hateful speech promoting violence – be suppressed without violating the First Amendment to the Constitution?

It seems like a good time for a civics lesson, time for all of us to test our understanding of one of our most precious rights. Be sure to complete the assignment to the best of your ability.  If you are confused and need to ask a question, remember that there is a good chance someone else has the same question, but is too timid to ask. Please ask questions and turn in your answers in the comment section below.

Before we begin, let’s remember that the freedoms named in the First Amendment are protected from government action (not private or individual actions) that would suppress them.  The Bill of Rights was written by Americans who had recently fought a revolution against a British empire they felt had overstepped its authority.  They believed in the rights of the people to express dissent, and even to advocate revolution.

And in the years since the ratification of the First Amendment, various court decisions have extended its reach beyond acts of Congress to all government actions – from federal regulations to local government-employed clerical workers.

But the courts have also carved out some common-sense exceptions to protected speech – instances in which it is constitutionally permitted to outlaw and punish free expression because of the social costs of allowing it.  The classic example of an exception to free speech is that it is constitutional to outlaw shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, leading to a panic and possible injuries as people attempt to flee.

Ready to begin?

Free Speech?

The First Amendment to the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law . . . [restricting] the freedom of speech . . . .”

–  Except that  –

The government may restrict your freedom of speech if that speech or expression:

[A]  constitutes “fighting words”

[B]  creates a clear and present danger, or

[C]  interferes with a government activity,

Additionally, the government may restrict the

[D]  time, manner, or place

that you exercise your right (but not deny your right entirely).

 

Instructions:   Read the story below.

  • Wherever you recognize one of the exceptions listed above in the story, write the letter of the exception (A,B, C, or D) on your answer sheet.
  • Wherever you think that Flatjack should be able to express his views without interference from the government, write the letter Z.
  • Remember that non-government actors may still legally suppress his speech even when it is unconstitutional for the government to do so.
  • Be prepared to justify your answers.

The Story

Flatjack Woofer believed that the world was flat.  He was concerned that many people were being misled by the teachers in school and by the media.  He decided to do something about it.

  1. Flatjack went down to the local public park and looked for a crowd. Spotting a soccer game, he walked out onto the field and turned to address the small crowd of parents and supporters.  “Turn away from the dangerous and unproven theory of terrestrial sphericality,” he said in a loud, clear speaking voice.  “Just look around you and you’ll see . . . .”  But he was cut off and knocked to the ground by a soccer ball hitting him on the side of the head.  (The game had continued even though he was standing on the playing field.)  He awoke to find himself being dragged away by a local policeman.  “You can’t come here and just make a speech in the middle of a game,” the cop said.  “Come back tomorrow when the kids are gone.  Now, beat it!”  The policeman dropped the dazed Flatjack by the side of the road.
  1. Flatjack was undeterred. He went to the local television station and sneaked in the back door when the janitor stepped out to smoke a cigarette.  Flatjack made his way onto the set of the 5:00 news show and jumped in front of the camera.  “Turn away from the dangerous and unproven theory of terrestrial sphericality,” he said. A weather reporter tackled him and wrestled him to the ground.
  1. Flatjack squirmed away and ran. The news director called the police.  Flatjack dashed outside and almost collided with the assistant to the associate director.  Startled and out of breath, Flatjack shouted out “You’re a damned fascist!”  The police arrived just at that moment and arrested Flatjack under the local ordinance banning “offensive, derisive, or  annoying” words uttered in public.
  1. Flatjack did not stay in jail for long. The television station declined to press charges, and instead developed a series of reports on the mental health crisis, featuring video of Flatjack raving in front of the camera.  Flatjack was disappointed that he did not get his day in court, and began to plan a rally to express his views.  He applied for a permit to speak in the park and printed up flyers that read, “As seen on TV – Flatjack Woofer speaks the truth about the ‘Round Earth’ Conspiracy.”  He posted these flyers everywhere he could, even covering the bulletin boards in the courthouse that usually announced the docket of cases that would be heard that day.  One of the judges whose bulletin board he covered was not amused, and issued a bench warrant for Flatjack’s arrest.
  1. Meanwhile, Flatjack was beside himself with excitement about the rally. On the big day, he stepped to the podium and began to whip the crowd into a frenzy with his impassioned words.  Halfway through his prepared speech, Flatjack spotted his high school Geography teacher strolling through the park at a distance.  Flatjack became enraged and screamed at the crowd, “There’s one of them now!  That man is a liar!  His victims are innocent children!  Show him what you think of his evil deception!”  Several members of the crowd ran over to the unsuspecting teacher and began to hit and kick him.  The police closed in and arrested the rioters.  Flatjack was also arrested and charged with orchestrating the attack on the teacher.

Flatjack claimed that the First Amendment right to free speech protected him from being prosecuted in all of these incidents.

What do you think?

______________

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/28/us/isis-influence-on-web-prompts-second-thoughts-on-first-amendment.html?ref=topics&_r=0

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Success in school, measured against real life

A presidential candidate promotes vocational education, saying, “We need more welders and less philosophers.”[1]

A Supreme Court justice asks from the bench whether black students might be better off attending “a slower-track school where they do well,” instead of a top-ranked college.[2]

In South Carolina, where high school graduation rates have topped 80%, business leaders worry if students are prepared for higher skilled jobs in manufacturing plants.  Nationally, colleges are providing remedial courses and experiencing drop-out rates in record numbers.[3]

Public dissatisfaction with public education is nearly universal, and evidence of its shortcomings is the fodder for news reports, internet diatribes, and anguished conversations in American households across the nation.

As members of the tax-paying public, we worry about equality – racial justice and the remedies for past injustices, access for all, costs, and accountability.  We worry about whether we are creating a generation of productive workers, or setting ourselves up for failure in a fast-moving world economy.

As members of families with school-age children, we worry about whether our own loved ones are getting what they need to lead successful lives.

There is certainly a good case to be made that equitable access to education has been lacking in this country – and that this has been true since colonial times.  We have a long history of deliberate discrimination in education, as well as de facto discrimination based on cultural values and residential choices.

In the 17th through 19th centuries, the best public schools were in New England – founded by Puritans to ensure that the citizenry would be able to read the Bible, and in the Mid-Atlantic states, where non-English immigrants settled, bringing with them a greater appreciation of the importance of education.  In the South, the poor had no schools, but wealthy landowners could afford both private tutors for their children and slaves to work their fields.

The legacy of this disparity lives today.  Brown v. Board of Education[4] outlawed racial segregation in schools. The courts took race-based discrimination very seriously.  For a time in many parts of the country, students were bused across districts to achieve a racial balance. But outlawing state-ordered segregation often did little to affect the actual quality of education in the schools.  Racism was only part of the problem. In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that the equal protection clause does not apply to funding for schools.  It is perfectly constitutional for students in wealthy areas to attend school in well-appointed palaces, while their poorer neighbors go to school in poorly equipped, outdated, under-funded facilities.[5]

But this kind of inequality pales in comparison to the kinds of dangers we are inviting today by holding to an outmoded concept of educational excellence.  Since the mid-20th century, Americans have clung to the belief that it is the goal of our public schools to prepare every student for college.  The fact is, not every person needs a traditional college education in order to be successful.  And the focus on college-preparation, with the language and mathematical skills it requires, leaves many students who possess different areas of strength out in the cold.

College is an elite and artificial environment, designed over centuries to reward and polish skills that are most perfectly suited to work in academia itself.  College was intended to be education for a small few, not the masses.  That college is now an option for many more young people than in generations past is a step in the right direction.  But it is still not for everyone.

Justice Scalia’s remark during oral arguments in a case about affirmative action has a racist ring to it.  The truth of the matter is that any smart and capable person of any color who is held to a lower standard can achieve greater success if success is measured strictly according to that standard.  But even this truth misses the point.  Why should we measure everyone according to a higher or lower version of the same standard?

We have been distracted by data measuring “success” in school.  We devote our energies to creating a system in which students can achieve and produce the kind of numbers that allow us to feel our schools are getting better.  But we make a crucial error when we make it easier for students to cross the same goal line as everyone else on the field.

We should make school more challenging, and we should allow students to succeed by developing their own natural strengths.  We should measure success for schools the same way we do for ourselves as individuals – by whether we are productively engaged in work that is both interesting and fulfilling.

There is an incredible diversity of skills in the human race, and our progress as a people depends on developing this potential.  That means creating an educational system that accepts unforeseen outcomes as well as prescribed results.  It should allow students to invent their own path to success – one that suits their unique set of passions and abilities.  Education should open doors, not push everyone down the same narrow corridor.

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[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/marco-rubio-philosophers_5642aa8be4b08cda3486a0f0

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/11/us/with-remarks-in-affirmative-action-case-scalia-steps-into-mismatch-debate.html?_r=0

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/27/us/as-graduation-rates-rise-experts-fear-standards-have-fallen.html

[4] Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)

[5] San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973)

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