Are high schools teach­ing stu­dents to de­value free speech?

The Boyertown Area Times - - OPINION - By Lata Nott Colum­nist Lata Nott is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the First Amend­ment Cen­ter of the New­seum In­sti­tute.

It seems like every few months we’re treated to the re­sults of a new sur­vey that has some­thing dis­may­ing to re­port about how young peo­ple ap­proach free speech. Last fall, the Brook­ings In­sti­tute re­ported that col­lege stu­dents have a num­ber of mis­con­cep­tions about how the First Amend­ment works — a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age be­lieves that it doesn’t pro­tect hate speech, and that it re­quires that an of­fen­sive speaker at a pub­lic uni­ver­sity be matched with an­other speaker with an op­pos­ing view. Last week, a sur­vey con­ducted by Gallup and the Knight Foun­da­tion found that 37 per­cent of col­lege stu­dents think that shout­ing down an of­fen­sive cam­pus speaker is ac­cept­able; even more trou­bling, an­other 10 per­cent said that vi­o­lence is also an ac­cept­able tac­tic for si­lenc­ing an of­fen­sive speaker.

Find­ings like these al­ways lead to a lot of hand-wring­ing about the in­tol­er­ance of to­day’s youth, fol­lowed by a back­lash of ed­i­to­ri­als point­ing out that cam­pus protests — es­pe­cially at elite col­leges — are over-cov­ered by the news me­dia, usu­ally topped off by in­ter­net com­men­ta­tors de­cry­ing lib­eral snowflakes and at least one colum­nist rem­i­nisc­ing about the ’60s at Berke­ley. I en­joy that as much as the next per­son, but let’s skip it for to­day. Why do col­lege stu­dents have a shaky un­der­stand­ing of the First Amend­ment and an aver­sion to op­pos­ing or con­tro­ver­sial views?

The prob­lem starts in high school. I’m not just re­fer­ring to the lack of manda­tory civic ed­u­ca­tion in pub­lic schools. Even in schools where stu­dents do learn about the First Amend­ment, many school ad­min­is­tra­tors don’t par­tic­u­larly want their stu­dents ex­er­cis­ing their free­dom of speech once they’ve learned about it.

Take the school walk­outs that took place across the na­tion on March 14 to protest gun vi­o­lence. About a week be­fore that, my col­league Gene Policin­ski and I wrote a set of guide­lines for stu­dents, teach­ers and school ad­min­is­tra­tors try­ing to fig­ure out how to ap­proach the event. We ad­vised stu­dents to weigh their op­tions care­fully, as their First Amend­ment rights would prob­a­bly not pro­tect them if their school de­cided to dis­ci­pline them for tak­ing part in the walk­out. (Pub­lic schools can pun­ish stu­dents for speech that “sub­stan­tially dis­rupts” the learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment, and a walk­out could very well do just that.) But we also ad­vised school ad­min­is­tra­tors to think twice be­fore de­fault­ing to dis­ci­plinary ac­tion — “Given that we live in an age where there is much con­cern that young peo­ple don’t un­der­stand the Con­sti­tu­tion or sup­port free speech, pun­ish­ing them for ex­er­cis­ing it, even if...school ad­min­is­tra­tors (have) that dis­cre­tion, seems coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.”

That’s why it sad­dened me to read that a high school in Arkansas de­cided to pun­ish the three stu­dents who par­tic­i­pated in the walk­out by giv­ing them a choice be­tween a two-day sus­pen­sion and cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment. (Fun fact: cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment is still le­gal in 22 states.) Even a two-day sus­pen­sion seems dis­pro­por­tion­ate to the of­fense of leav­ing your class­room for sev­en­teen min­utes.

It was also dis­heart­en­ing for me to talk to the two high school jour­nal­ists who pub­lished a metic­u­lously-re­searched story about a fired teacher — and ended up hav­ing their story cen­sored by the ad­min­is­tra­tion and their news­pa­per priv­i­leges re­voked. As one of the jour­nal­ists, Max Gor­don, said, “.. the whole point of a stu­dent news­pa­per is to teach the stu­dents. We want to grow and learn and ex­pe­ri­ence these things, but if the ad­min­is­tra­tion tries to shut down any form of out­side-the-box think­ing...it re­ally ham­pers the growth by jour­nal­ists.”

And when ed­u­ca­tors em­pha­size obe­di­ence and con­form­ity over the free ex­pres­sion, they need to think about what lessons they’re ac­tu­ally con­vey­ing.

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