Cheat-Seeking Missles

Friday, March 30, 2007

Kids, Courts, Government And Free Speech

I've always found it interesting that current news often creates a diarama in the foreground of older news that is just reaching the courts. As Tinker v. DesMoines, the landmark decision on the extent of freedom of speech in high school, comes up for a challenge before the Supreme Court, the world marches on, presenting us with examples that underscore the importance of the case.

Tinker grew out of the Vietnam era, when a couple high schoolers were suspended for wearing anti-war T-shirts. It's been a tough issue for the courts ever since, with the basic rule now being along the line of, "As long as they don't interrupt the school's purpose of education, anything goes."

As high school freedom of speech and Tinker come before the Court for a new review, from different sides of the world two very different stories frame Tinker with new urgency and clarity. First, from New Hampshire:
HAMPTON, N.H. (AP) - Some parents are protesting the "sex" edition of the student newspaper at Winnacunnet High School. Several said they were especially offended by a photograph of two women kissing under the headline, "Why men love women who love women," a quiz question about anal sex, and an interview with an unnamed custodian who said he had found a vibrator in the girls' shower.

"Those articles offended me personally as a parent," said Venus Merrill, a school board member. "It's not something you want to read with your 10-year-old and it's not something that should be going home."

Principal Randy Zito said the Winnachronicle had crossed the line of responsible reporting and that he had dealt with the problem privately. He also said he had pulled copies of the paper that normally would have been sent to middle schools in the cooperative school district.

The newspaper's faculty adviser defended the editors' decisions and said the February edition of the paper was intended to inform students, not shock people—although they knew it would stir controversy.

"The kids wrote the articles and came up with the topic," said adviser Carol Downer. "They didn't go out to cause controversy, but the Winnachronicle is also not a P.R. piece for the high school. This is a place for students to express their view and talk about the issues that are troubling the student body."

The newspaper is not reviewed in advance of publication by administrators. The school board has not discussed the controversy in a public meeting, but parent Paula Wood, of Seabrook, said she wants it on the agenda for the next one.

Under Tinker, parent Venus Merrill may not have much to say about the newspaper. If the girls in the photo were students at the school, that could disrupt education and be grounds for stopping publication. Anal sex? That's probably not something Tinker would meddle with.

Abe Fortas, who famously said in the Tinker decision that freedom of speech doesn't end at the schoolhouse door, probably didn't anticipate school newspapers writing about anal sex and vibrators; we just don't know how he would have differentiated political protest from sexual messages.

Meanwhile in Europe, there's a flare-up between the EU and Poland:

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – The European Parliament is poised to investigate the legality of draft restrictions against discussion of homosexuality in Polish schools, if a bill is formally proposed. But a leading NGO has already expressed concern over civil liberties in Poland.

Warsaw is planning to ban discussions on homosexuality in schools and educational institutions across the deeply orthodox Roman Catholic country, with teachers set to be fired, fined or imprisoned if they violate the rules. Openly gay teachers would also be in line to lose their jobs.

The European Parliament's committee on civil liberties discussed the Polish ideas on Tuesday (20 March) and decided to launch a study into the compatibility of such legislation with EU rules, if the bill is ever officially submitted to the Polish lower house.

"The disturbing proposals to outlaw discussion of homosexuality raise serious concerns about the commitment to fundamental rights in Poland," said Dutch green MEP Kathalijne Buitenweg in a statement after the meeting.

"It is shocking that the government of a modern European country would even consider such draconian legislation. The promotion of gay hatred is the antithesis of EU anti-discrimination rules and the Polish government must publicly reject this approach," she added.
Odd, isn't it, that disallowing the teaching of homosexuality is seen as "the promotion of gay hatred?" Be that as it may, this case frames a counter-extreme to cases like that unfolding in New Hampshire.

To look at Poland's proposed restrictions under a Tinker lens, imagine a school newspaper running a story calling for a ban on the teaching of homosexual issues and the expulsion of gay teachers. Such an article, offensive as it may be to Lib sensitivities, would certainly be allowed.

Libs pushing for expansion of free speech through a more liberal interpretation of Tinker need to be aware that the decision would allow more conservative actions -- like challenging the imposition of the homosexual agenda in the classroom -- not just liberal messages. And while Libs like big government, they can see in Poland's proposed new law the risks that come with letting government control too much of education.

Conservatives offended by the New Hampshire newspaper (or a "bong hits for Jesus" T-shirt, as is going before the Court now) and hoping for a more narrow definition of free speech on campus should pause as they consider the EU's heavy-handed meddling in Poland's affairs, which is very parallel to states rights issues here in America. Do we want federal law dictating what can or cannot be said in our schools, or should that be left to local school boards?

Me? I prefer that schools be places of learning. Part of that learning experience is to give the students the chance to debate hot issues, and part of it is the opportunity to see adults acting intelligently. That means principals have to actually think, be role models and take actions.

Sometimes, letting free speech rule makes sense and spawns debate and learning. Sometimes defining the limits of free speech and prohibiting certain actions makes sense and spawns debate and learning. If the standing policy is "anything goes all the time," students will not learn anything useful, just as will be the case if the policy is "anything controversial must be avoided."

Of course, my idea requires bold principals who are not afraid to act. Don't laugh; it's not impossible. It is what we should ask of those to whom we entrust our children's education, and failure to model effective moral clarity should be grounds for dismissal.

Hat-tips: Breitbart and Brussels Journal

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