When school grounds become free-speech battlegrounds

Sunday, June 5, 2005

Should high school students have full freedom to exercise their First Amendment rights? The courts — and just about every fiber in a parent’s and principal’s being — say no.

If not full freedom, how far should we go in limiting it?

To the extent that teaching our kids is a process of instilling our civic values, these are important questions. To the extent that schools turn out young citizens who in time will hold our freedom in their hands, we need to get those answers right.

Understandably, most of us believe that schools should serve as something of a sanctuary from the coarseness that permeates our culture. The trick is to find a way to teach the principles of freedom while limiting the practice of those principles.

There are disturbing signs that we have not found the right balance. Earlier this year many Americans were astounded to find out just how little regard there is for First Amendment rights in the nation’s high schools.

A survey of more than 100,000 high school students, teachers and officials funded by the Knight Foundation revealed that the vast majority of respondents either don’t think about or take for granted free-speech rights. And when they do think about them, they are often uninformed or, worse, dismissive: three-fourths of the students think flag-burning is illegal; half believe that the government can censor the Internet; only 51% believe that newspapers should be free to publish without government approval.

There are no doubt a variety of reasons for these dismal findings. But the lessons most quickly learned by young people are not in classroom lectures but in what they see play out in official actions and policies affecting student life. Just a few recent news items reveal the intensity and frequency with which students are forced to grapple with free-speech issues.

The high school newspaper, of course, is a continual challenge to a principal’s sense of good order and appropriateness.

In Bakersfield, Calif., student editors went to court to challenge the principal’s decision not to distribute the newspaper because of his concerns for the safety of gay students identified in a feature section.

The principal at Collinsville High School in Illinois delayed publication of the April issue of the student newspaper until the last day of school, reportedly because the previous issue of the paper contained criticism of the guidance and math departments.

Claiming that their principal at Monona Grove in Wisconsin censored the official student newspaper, two of its editors set up an alternative newspaper but the principal also demanded prior review of articles intended for that new paper.

It should be pointed out that tussles between student journalists and school officials are not just about sex, indecency or indiscretion. In fact, student journalists are targeted for taking on serious social and political issues both inside and outside the schools. Such issues may be highly relevant to their readers but can be highly uncomfortable for their principals.

Summing up a significant, if not prevalent, view of the relationship between school newspapers and officials was the comment of a teacher described by the Student Press Law Center as a mentor for the Monona Grove editors: “A school newspaper is not public speech any more than classroom conversation is public speech. This is the principal’s paper — not the students’ paper — and he has every right to decide what goes into it.”

Newspapers are not the only source of contention over expression. So are school plays.

Teachers at Stone Bridge High School in Virginia late last month changed the script and lyrics to eliminate references to sex and smoking in the musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Three months earlier, the staging of a student-written play about a football player’s struggle with homosexuality sparked an emotional debate in the community and demands for changes in school policies.

And the principal at a San Fernando Valley high school in California ordered the removal of 100 posters promoting a school play. The posters, which caricatured President Bush with a cigar, were banned because they promoted “one ideology over another” — and smoking.

The schools cited in these examples are no better or worse than others across the nation, where similar events unfold on a daily basis. Textbooks are being revised. Teachers are being warned. Principals are being pressured. And students are being punished for what they wear, what they write in class assignments, and what they post on their own Web sites.

These battles are neither isolated nor insignificant.

At the high school level, especially, we must recognize that while limits on student expression may be necessary, if the restrictions we impose are too harsh we undermine student commitment to rights fundamental to democracy and essential to individual achievement.

Simple answers — like “just shut up and listen” — are tempting. But simple answers are seldom right or sufficient. On such an important matter as this, our kids and our constitutional heritage deserve better than that.

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