"Parents aren't interested in justice; they want QUIET!" - Bill Cosby
An unattributed editorial a few months ago in USA Today stated that American schools are failing when it comes to providing a free speech environment for their students. Cited were various instances of school paper and yearbook content being censored by school administrators.
According to the editorial, the reason for this censorship is that, “When those in power find free speech uncomfortable, they're tempted to squash it.” This hits the nail on the head. But, the factors contributing to this discomfort typically go overlooked.
Schools (pre-college) are an ideal environment for those who like to call the shots. Minors basically have no rights, so school is the one place where the authoritarian and the ideologue can really thrive. It's a great place to impose one's worldview on a captive audience. Once young people are "out in the world," they have to be dealt with as adults and private citizens, not as subjects. A window of a few years is all the control freaks in charge have, and some of them mean to make the most of it.
One of the most extreme and high profile examples of this came when Louisiana instituted a law requiring students to refer to adults as “ma’am” and “sir,” respectively. Does an effort to reinforce adults’ self-esteem (by reassuring them that they're in control) really belong in a law book? That's what this issue was about.
My high school principal made no secret she was a patriotic, consternative, Christian Republicant, and wanted us all to be the same. This was clearly reflected in the kinds of guest speakers she invited to the school, including people who invited us to accept Christ as our personal saviors. This was a public school, mind you. (Had I been more socially aware I would've given the ACLU a call.)
At the same time, she saw that a line about “men raising flags when they can’t get anything else up” was excised from the school’s production of Pippin because she wasn’t “comfortable” with it.
Some schools are surely breathing a sigh of relief now that the Supreme Court has tossed out the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” suit, where a student who held up a banner with those infamous words and was subsequently suspended for two weeks sued his school. Free expression is a part of free thought, which pre-college educational institutions rarely encourage; truth be told, they actively discourage it. It threatens their control over the kids, as they see it. It’s "disruptive." It’s "inappropriate."
Just recently a Connecticut high school stage production about the war in Iraq was banned by that school over concerns of plagiarism and one-sided storytelling. The show consisted mainly of student actors reading the words of real people who've been directly involved in the war, some of whom are now deceased.
The school's reasoning for the ban is highly dubious; I imagine the real reasons were fear of controversy, fear of offending some, and, I honestly believe this, fear of giving students a taste of freedom that they might want to enjoy even more of in the future. Shaming the kids' own alma mater, an off-Broadway theatre has agreed to stage the production, which has since received positive reviews.
You don’t get a captive audience of young people after high school, unless it’s a private college. You know, the kind that tell young adults what they may wear, how they may wear their hair, and who they may date (if at all). Or, of course, the military. But this is an "academic" discussion.
There is a notion shared by many adults that free speech is for adults only. In the movie Dead Poet’s Society, when an administrator is asked by Robin Williams’ character about youth being free to speak their minds, the former responds, “At these kids’ age? Never.” Apparently, the way to prepare someone for life as a free-thinking adult is to deny them that right as a kid.
I may be the only adult in this country who believes that teenagers should be allowed at least one outlet for unfiltered expression. Not the right to threaten or harass anyone, but if they feel something sucks (homework, standardized testing, graduation requirements, disco, etc.), having the ability to say so without being censored or punished.
I understand the need to exercise some control over student publications, plays, etc. I also know that kids can be real smartasses sometimes. But I recognize the value of allowing them to express themselves. I think being given the chance to vent is both healthy and important (it would've help me; instead, I simply stored up my anger and frustration with the way things were and later turned to blogging... haha!), while some adults see this as encouraging rebellion. Or simply, as in the case of the Connecticut high school or my own high school principal, going against their personal consternative values.
Notice I don't go much into the First Amendment here; I think reason, common sense and common courtesy are what should drive students' free expression. Constitutional protection should just be the reassuring icing on the cake.
Some readers have suggested I should go into politics, and I appreciate that. But I think my best role in society (which would no doubt view me as a gadfly) would be that of "youth advocate." It's what I've always been.