Preserve freedom by letting students exercise rights, panelists say

Tuesday, September 25, 2001

NEW YORK — In a period when terrorism has gripped the nation in fear, defending First Amendment freedoms by teaching students to practice their constitutional rights is the key to preserving those freedoms, Charles Haynes said yesterday at a taping of Brian Lehrer’s “On The Line.”

“We’re all a little bit in shock,” Haynes said, addressing a packed auditorium at the First Amendment Center. “And once that wears off, what will we do to defend freedom in the deeper sense? The long-term defense of freedom is, of course, the practice of freedom.”

The First Amendment Center’s senior scholar added, “Defending freedom doesn’t mean very much if you don’t have it in the end of the day.”

A panel of students, educators and First Amendment experts joined WNYC-AM’s Lehrer in a discussion about how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will affect schools and the First Amendment. The two-hour program, titled “Defending Freedom in Its Time of Maximum Danger: A Challenge to Educators,” is scheduled to air Sept. 28.

One of the many challenges, Haynes said, is an unfortunate finding in a recent First Amendment Center survey, done prior to Sept. 11, that showed many educators can’t name even one of the five First Amendment rights.

Lehrer described the overall challenge to the nation’s schools as keeping the balance between safety and freedom.

“The World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks have left us all off-balance, searching for a new center of gravity in so many ways,” he said. “Among the ways, a new balance between freedom and security, between national unity and the expression of dissent, between seeing every American as an individual or (as) a member of a religious or ethnic group. Among other places, this awkward balancing act will take place in our nation’s schools, always the First Amendment battleground.”

Lehrer also echoed Haynes’ sentiment that the nation many times limits freedoms as it tries to protect them.

“In our zeal to protect them, we sometimes compromise the very freedoms that we’re fighting to save: censoring dissent in the name of group harmony, limiting the speech of some to make room for a diversity of views, limiting religious expression in the name of preserving religious diversity, curtailing privacy for the sake of safety,” said Lehrer, an award-winning radio host.

He pointed out many freedoms from which students are already excluded.

“In schools, we often tell students what they may and may not wear, screen student newspapers for offensive material, stop students from saying prayers in certain contexts, search their bags and lockers for weapons and their bodies for drugs,” he said.

The First Amendment Center’s Sam Chaltain said that instead of limiting student freedoms, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and the First Amendment Center suggest schools should be “laboratories for democracy,” where students get the maximum freedom. ASCD is an association of professional educators.

Chaltain, a co-coordinator for the joint ASCD-First Amendment model school program, a new national initiative, said schools’ attempts to protect student freedom by limiting it have been counterproductive.

“Educators have a real vested interest in creating safe environments for all of their students,” Chaltain said. “Especially since Columbine what we’ve done is we’ve reacted with the best of intentions by restricting what student freedoms are: zero-tolerance policies, hate-speech codes. And usually what ends up happening is, despite the best of intentions, these policies end up creating the very problems that they’re designed to prevent.”

Chaltain said that the First Amendment model school program gives students complete use of their First Amendment freedoms and teaches them to use their rights responsibly.

“What we’re suggesting,” Chaltain said, “is that the First Amendment provides an ideal civic framework for all of us that allows us to live with our deepest differences and creates unity in the interest of diversity instead of at the expense of it.”

The ASCD’s Mike Wildasin used student journalism as a specific example of the First Amendment school model.

In a model school, instead of student newspapers undergoing prior review by administrators, students who run their newspapers could simply commit to being responsible journalists — and by their oath, they would produce responsible journalism, he said.

Chaltain elaborated. “Students understand that they have a right to report on certain things that may be considered controversial. But at the same time, they have an equally important civic responsibility to take that freedom, guard it, be mindful of the other opinions and perspectives in their community,” he said.

Student panel member Allison Slotnick, co-editor in chief of the student newspaper at New York’s Townsend Harris High School, said the next issue of The Classic would be full of letters from students and faculty about the World Trade Center attacks. The editors are including a balanced cross-section of the letters and are trying to get the voices of the community into the paper, she said.

“We’ve gotten stacks and stacks (of letters), and we’re getting all sorts of opposing viewpoints so far,” Slotnick added. “We’ve been getting people having theories of, ‘Is this the first of many to come?’ What the future of everything’s going to be in the school and in the community. We’re getting students expressing their different views about different racial groups. And we’re also getting students who think that things will be fine and we’ll get through this.”

Ilsa Cowen, the paper’s adviser and a teacher at the high school, also expressed concern that students should not be afraid to voice their opinions and even express dissent.

“In times of hyper-patriotism, in times of sorrow that we’re all sharing, there is a tremendous fear to express dissent,” Cowen said. “If we’re going to censor ourselves, if we’re going to abridge our own First Amendment rights, again we’re going to lose the very freedoms that we’re trying to defend.”

Haynes added, “If kids in schools aren’t taught how to dissent in ways that they are heard and listened to … then when they become citizens, they are not prepared to treat each other with respect and listen to one another. And that’s I think what we’re facing now.”

Freedom of religion also needs to be addressed in schools, said Joe Loconte of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Loconte said separation of church and state should still be enforced, but students should be allowed to practice their religion on their own. He said influencing or restricting one First Amendment freedom would affect all the others as well.

“There’s this intimate bond between religious freedom and civil freedom,” Loconte said. “And however we think about what we’re going to do now to somehow restrict our freedoms, we got to realize we’re going to impact all of them potentially as we go down this road.”

Much of the problem, Haynes said, is that educators and administrators are still fuzzy on where schools draw the line for religious freedom. He cited an instance in Texas where a teacher told students they could not write about Jesus as their hero for a school assignment because of the separation of church and state.

Waqas Saikh, another Townsend Harris High School student, is a Pakistani immigrant and practicing Muslim who told the audience he had heard horror stories from other Muslim students after the Sept. 11 attack.

“I haven’t personally experienced any heat or racial profiling, and I’m thankful to not have undergone that,” Saikh said. “I have a friend who goes to high school in Brooklyn. … She was targeted because she was wearing the Muslim scarf … and she was told that she was the cause for all this (terrorism), she was to blame.”

Saikh said that school assemblies and talk-ins held for Muslim students and others have been beneficial in answering students’ questions on the incident.

Teach-ins and discussions have also been organized at Hunter College in New York City, said freshman student Wanda Anderson. There’s also a lot of student protest against impending U.S. military actions, she added.

“We feel that war is really not the answer because if you have an eye for an eye, we’re both going to go blind,” Anderson said.

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