Burning the chance to educate youth about respect and rights

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Editor’s note: On June 14, after the original version of this column was
distributed, the Associated Press reported that district officials had reversed
their decision to shut down the Shasta High School
Volcano. This updated
version reflects that development.

Just in time for Flag Day earlier this month, a California public school
principal managed, in one swoop and in the name of respecting the Stars and
Stripes, to show a lack of respect for the First Amendment’s protections for
both free speech and a free press.

By a presidential proclamation in 1949, the nation officially recognized June
14 as Flag Day. Flags fly proudly from front porches. Politicians offer
rhetorical salutes. In some years, Congress has been locked in debate that very
day over a proposed constitutional amendment that would permit laws against flag
desecration. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has gotten into the spirit, issuing a
ruling on June 14, 1943, on a West Virginia compulsory flag-salute law, and
another in 2004 in a case involving the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of

According to news reports, Shasta High School Principal Milan Woollard, in
Redding, Calif., decided to short-circuit any public debate in his school over
flag-burning by killing off the student newspaper, the Volcano, which
carried a front-page photo collage including an image of a student holding an
American flag burning at the edges. Woollard was quoted in the Redding
Record Searchlight newspaper
as saying the photo was embarrassing and
that “the paper’s done … there’s not going to be a newspaper next year.”

On June 14, school officials reversed the decision to close the paper,
deciding to fund another year of journalism education. Superintendent Mike
Stuart reportedly said he had agreed to keep the program after the incoming
editor-in-chief appealed to him for a chance to publish a serious, respectable
paper. Stuart also said he would reevaluate the newspaper and interest in the
journalism program at the end of the next school year.

Burning an American flag is, without a doubt, a repulsive thing to most
Americans. But let’s take a closer look at what happened in Redding — both the
decision to close the Volcano and the later decision to keep the paper
and the program going.

School officials have been given wide latitude by the courts in recent years
to restrict student speech or student press when either is proven disruptive to
the educational process or when that speech intrudes on the rights of other

And, according to the principal, the school system already was looking at
closing the newspaper to cut costs amid reduced state funding. But the decision
by student editors to run the photo — accompanied by an editorial saying
flag-burning was protected by the First Amendment — rather solidly “cements that
decision,” Woollard was quoted as saying.

Nothing in news reports says the final edition, published in the last week of
school, caused any disruption of education. And shutting down or censoring a
student newspaper for any reason that smacks of convenience — fiscal, personal
or political — runs counter to the lessons that young citizens should be
learning about why America values a free press and freedom of expression.

The student editor said the photo and accompanying editorial were published
because he and classmates had just studied the issue of flag-burning in their
government class. An administrator said publishing the image was immature and
self-indulgent. But whatever the students’ motivation in running the photo and
editorial, the occasion affords a golden opportunity in the Golden State for
education, not repression.

Far better that Principal Woollard, Superintendent Stuart, the next student
editor and others write about their views in the first edition next term.

Would it not do good for all involved to read about why burning the American
flag so offends the principal and so many other citizens; to hear from veterans
who risked their lives under that banner to preserve the Constitution and the
Bill of Rights? Would it not do good for students and others to discover and
discuss what happens to people in other nations who deface their national
symbols in order to express their views?

Would it also not do good to hear more from those who would explain why this
distasteful act ought to be — as it is — protected by law partly as the ultimate
demonstration to the world of how much the United States values the right of its
citizens to express themselves?

Would it not be good for all sides to consider the words of Justice William
Brennan, from a 1989 ruling in Texas v. Johnson that protects flag-burning, who
said, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is
that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because
society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable”?

More discussion and more information — in other words, more education — about
controversial issues and views is what ought to occur at Shasta High and in the

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First
Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org.
E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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