Teacher honored for free-speech commitment sounds off on censorship

Friday, June 25, 1999

Florida high school teacher ReLeah Lent, who received a national award earlier this year for her commitment to First Amendment freedoms, says too many educators stifle students’ free-expression rights.

“The reaction of too many school administrators is to shut everything down because they want everything to look good,” she told freedomforum.org. “Too many school administrators are more concerned with the image of the school than with determining what’s really going on.”

In May, Lent received the PEN First Amendment award, given annually to the individual who through “courageous and persistent efforts, in the face of adversity, … safeguard[s] the First Amendment right to freedom of expression as it applies to the written word.”

“I hope this award will help give students the courage and inspiration to fight against censorship,” she said.

Lent made national news when she filed a lawsuit in 1997 against the Bay District School Board after she was removed as adviser to Making Waves, the paper at Mosley High School in Lynn Haven, Fla.

The school’s new principal said he removed Lent because he wanted the paper to “focus more on school spirit” than on “negative” stories. However, Lent fought back in defense of the paper, which she said had been established as a forum for student expression and had “never been censored.”

Lent, who settled the case with the district for $120,000, still has some misgivings about not going to trial. “I did not feel so good about settling the case,” she said. “I somehow feared that I would be selling out. But my attorneys told me that the settlement would still send a powerful message that school administrators need to respect students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights.”

Lent says the need for anti-censorship efforts is urgent, especially in light of current efforts to restrict students’ First Amendment rights. “Students are more scrutinized than ever before,” she said. “After Columbine, students are more closely watched and guarded.”

The 21-year teaching veteran says schools should allow forums for free expression rather than become more authoritarian. “We need to know what students are thinking, instead of closing down their channels of communication,” she said.

Lent also criticizes the current push for dress codes and uniforms in public schools. “Kids should be free to express themselves through their clothing,” she said. “It allows them to develop their personalities and let them and the world know who they are. Letting kids freely express themselves also leads to a spirit of cooperation.”

She says banning black trench coats is far too “simplistic” an approach to combating school violence. “That is not the root of the problem.”

The censorship of books in public schools also raises Lent’s ire. “Book banning makes me absolutely sick,” she said. “That is the worst thing that we could do in education.”

She says that problems arise with reading material when parents complain that a certain book is too offensive. “I don’t have a problem with a parent saying that her child should not read a certain book. That is that parent’s right. However, I object to a parent trying to restrict what other kids read,” she said.

Lent successfully battled the school board over restrictions on the reading of John Steinbeck’s classic novel Of Mice and Men. “I have never been able to understand why people want to restrict access to ideas,” she said.

“Our children should be free to read, write, think and express themselves. Otherwise we will raise a nation of robots.”

Lent also fears that many of her colleagues have had their free-speech rights chilled in the wake of recent cases involving public school teachers Cecilia Lacks and Margaret Boring.

Lacks, who won the PEN First Amendment award in 1996, was fired by school officials in Missouri for refusing to censor profanity from students’ creative writing projects. Although she recovered $750,000 at a jury trial, a federal appeals court reversed the ruling and ruled in favor of school officials. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear her appeal earlier this year.

Boring, a drama teacher for a high school in North Carolina, was punished by school officials for allowing her students to stage a play that administrators deemed controversial. She also failed in her lawsuit in the federal courts.

Lent cautions that First Amendment advocates must continue to press for students’ and teachers’ free-expression rights to combat the insidious spread of censorship. “One overt act of censorship leads to countless covert acts of censorship,” she said.