Denying young people’s rights ‘for their own good’

Friday, July 10, 1998

Today’s young citizens inhabit a constitutional demimonde where their rights are routinely circumscribed “for their own good.”

Because of wholesale restrictions on their First Amendment freedoms, the civics lessons they learn are not what the teachers are teaching but what the students are seeing.

As a society, we have decided that young people are only sort-of citizens. Consequently, civics lessons in school are dry, dusty and abstract. Individual rights, students learn, are seldom appreciated by their parents and seldom available to their peers.

In a democratic republic, the principle of majority rule comes with a powerful caveat: that the individual has certain inalienable rights that may not be rescinded by majority vote. But that crucial message is being lost in the majoritarian milieu that engulfs our children.

Here are just a few of the things happening in this nation’s schools and communities that make so difficult our educational system’s job of imparting civic knowledge while instilling democratic values in the nation’s future voters and leaders:

  • The Winter School District in Wisconsin adopted a policy preventing students from accessing “controversial materials” on the Internet after a young honors student found Web sites about feminist literature, witchcraft, Buddhism and the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance. These were not sites containing pornography, hate speech, or bomb recipes — just “controversial material,” meaning what community leaders and school authorities found discomfiting.
  • In Silver Springs, Nev., high school officials pulled a student literary magazine from store shelves and apologized for a satirical poem written by a student as a class assignment because local citizens thought it was too critical of the community.
  • School officials in Long Island, N.Y., have banned three popular teen magazines — Seventeen, Teen and YM — from the middle-school library. Why? Because some parents told school officials it was a local priest’s opinion that the magazines “go against what we believe is the truth about sex as Catholic Christians.”
  • The principal at Stuyvesant High School in New York shut down its award-winning newspaper, The Spectator, for no particular reason other than it didn’t have a “charter.” She denied the shutdown had anything to do with articles critical of the school that the newspaper had published.
  • In San Diego, a high school sophomore was punished and ridiculed for exercising her constitutional right not to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. She will have to go to court to protect those rights.

Too much majority authority
This is the world through the eyes of our young people. When what they see contradicts what we say, or when what we say contradicts what we claim to celebrate, the lesson is much more internalized and difficult to erase after these young people reach the age of majority.

In a national survey last summer, The Freedom Forum found that more than 70% of Americans felt that the U.S. education system had failed them miserably when it came to teaching them about their First Amendment rights. Another generation will soon be echoing that regret.

Instead of educating our children, preparing them for citizenship and empowering them with the rights that must precede responsibility, we are raising them with a cramped and distorted understanding of their heritage.

It is their right to know that there is a significant difference between state policy and individual conscience. The one must submit to the will of the majority. The other cannot.

If the individual conscience is made to submit to the majority, this bold experiment in democracy has been for nothing.

Here is just a sampling of the personal and constitutional tragedy that emerges when the individual is lost in the majority, in this case the painful story of a middle school student in the Bronx.

A substitute teacher, Mildred Rosario, was talking to her students about the recent death of a classmate. Mrs. Rosario, by her own account, asked the sixth-graders “if anyone would like to accept Jesus as their personal savior.” All the children under her authority raised their hands. “I started praying in Spanish, then I went to each one of them. I put my hand on their forehead asking Jesus to take care of them and their families.”

Although school officials dismissed Mrs. Rosario for such a flagrant breach of the church-state divide, she was hailed as a hero by several hundred people who rallied outside the Board of Education building in downtown Brooklyn, was lauded by the mayor, and was the star attraction at a press conference in the nation’s capital, where Majority Whip Tom DeLay and other members of the House of Representatives praised her courage and condemned her dismissal.

But what about the 11-year-old Jehovah’s Witness subjected to her teacher’s pentecostal proselytizing in the public school classroom that day? She told a relative, who told school officials about what had happened. When she returned to class, she was jeered and threatened by the other students and finally forced to pack up her things and leave school. At last count, she had not returned, too frightened to face the wrath of her teachers and schoolmates for even mentioning her rights.

Restrictions left and right
Day in and day out, these stories of individual suffering and denial of fundamental rights unfold. And it’s not just in our schools.

Across the nation, hundreds of cities have enacted curfews restricting where and when young people can assemble. State senators in Michigan want to keep young people out of some music concerts. Members of Congress want to restrict access to the Internet. Conservative groups want to limit what they can buy in bookstores. Liberal groups want to proscribe what they see on television and in the movies.

All of these things are done in the name of protecting the children — but with the unfortunate outcome of perverting their notion of what it means to be an American living free in an open society.

So our schools and our society appear to have done a great job of inculcating in all of us the principle that in a democracy, the majority rules. We have not, however, done a good job of teaching that the principle comes with a very important caveat called the Bill of Rights.

The U.S. Constitution was ratified with a condition imposed by the states and the people that the Bill of Rights would be adopted as a guarantee of certain basic freedoms. So we have a Constitution that says what the government can do and a Bill of Rights that says what the government cannot do to its citizens.

Because we have not gotten that message across, we have a massive movement afoot in this nation to compromise or eliminate precious and necessary freedoms, individual liberties that are the hallmark of our unique system. And a failure to appreciate the full import of those individual rights has led to constant and continuing attempts to restrict them, whether they have to do with freedom of speech or freedom of conscience.

We see that lack of appreciation play out in Republic, Mo., where town officials are raising thousands of dollars to keep a Christian symbol on the town seal, while the few in the town who are not Christians are threatened with vilification or loss of jobs.

We see it in Maryland, where a minor league baseball team provides discounted tickets to people who come to the game carrying their church bulletins. The general manager explains: “If the people don’t belong to a church, they should belong to a church. I’m sure everybody believes in God.”

And we see it in Alabama Gov. Fob James, who wants official prayer in public schools, defies court rulings against religion in the schools, and says the Bill of Rights does not apply to the states.

This idea, that whatever the majority wants the majority gets, is manifest in the current drive to amend the First Amendment to ban disrespect to the flag. If this amendment is ratified — and that is quite possible — then one of the most basic tenets of our democratic tradition would be diminished.

Yet such a radical move is justified by supporters of the amendment, who claim that a majority of Americans want it.

Whether true or not, that claim is enough for a majority of U.S. senators to support this first-ever diminution of the Bill of Rights. They either don’t understand this basic compact between a government and its people, or they don’t appreciate it, or they don’t have the political spine to honor it.

Meanwhile, as our young people observe this world, they see essential freedoms routinely pilfered, squandered, discarded or stolen before they can either learn them or claim them. With increasing frequency, they are being told that their rights must be subordinated to the will of the majority or the might of authority.

This is what de Tocqueville and Lord Acton called the “tyranny of the majority” and Jefferson called the “tyranny of the many.”

Whatever you call it, when it involves a systematic stripping away of the rights of the few, then the rule of the majority is not that much different from the mentality of the mob. Is that really the lesson we want to teach our citizens-to-be?