new hope in oregon
The Supreme Court is once again playing keepaway with the U.S. Constitution, reducing the First Amendment rights of our sons and daughters in a quirky case that threatens to create a less-democratic environment in our public schools.
A divided U.S. Supreme Court, in Morse v. Frederick, a case involving a cryptic student banner (and labeled as “oddball” by The New York Times), last month whittled away at 38 years of legal precedent and further restricted the First Amendment rights of our students.
The 5-4 decision, marked by angry rhetoric on both sides of the issue, represented another aberration from 1969 when the high court boldly proclaimed in Tinker v. Des Moines that there should be no age restrictions when it comes to free speech and that student First Amendment rights don’t stop at the schoolhouse gate.
Over the last 19 years, the Republican-influenced court has told our students their speech must be civil at all times (Bethel vs. Fraser, 1986). They have told students that their newspapers are subject to arbitrary censorship by their principals (Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier, 1988). Now, in the latest case, dubbed “Bong Hits 4 Jesus, the Supreme Court has told students they are prohibited from speech that might – just might -- be construed as advocating drug use.
Yes, sad times for those who believe that there should be no age limits on free speech, the most important plank in the structure of our Constitution.
And, if the court’s whittlers have their way, free speech will be taken away altogether.
Clarence Thomas, the conservative jurist, said “it cannot seriously be suggested that the First Amendment freedom of speech encompasses a student’s right to speak in public schools.” He talked about the old days when “teachers commanded and students obeyed.”
Thank goodness many of the nation’s newspapers, bloggers and commentators believe the court – at least Thomas – has overreached this time.
But real optimism that this court activity may be checked sooner rather later comes from the West Coast – in Oregon. Hope will radiate from the Oregon state house on Friday (July 13) when Gov. Ted Kulongoski is expected to sign a historic law guaranteeing free-expression rights to the state’s high school and college journalists.
Oregon is a small state, but the law is a start, trumping most of the high court’s abuses – at least in that state. It shows that not all citizens believe in the ways of the Roberts Supreme Court. In fact, six other states already have such laws and others are being considered in a wide variety of states, including Vermont, Michigan, North Carolina and Indiana. If written broadly enough in the future, these state laws will effectively negate the Supreme Court’s efforts to strip away free speech for our young citizens.
First Amendment and civics advocates see the law as significant and one that might jump-start those similar efforts. In Michigan, a free-expression bill received a big boost earlier this week with the endorsement by the Detroit Free Press, the state’s largest newspaper.
There is further optimism from academia. The president of a major Midwest university has spoken out against the censorship of student journalists at a high school near Fort Wayne, Indiana. Jo Ann Gora, Ball State’s president, called the muzzling and discipline of a .teacher – Amy Sorrell – a “dark cloud” over the school “Strangely,” Gora said, “her (Sorrell) belief in the importance of promoting tolerance led to her punishment.”
Bad news. Good news. Such is the tenuous world of the First Amendment in a society bending to the right on the national stage.
The young minds of today’s students are shaped by dialogue and ideas and viewpoints and facts and critical thinking. Kids learn by studying and debating. Young minds must be exposed to an open forum of ideas and issues.
This is how democracy works. This is why students must enjoy the same First Amendment protection as their mothers and fathers.
Yes, a young mind is like a parachute. It functions fully and properly only when it’s open.
Warren Watson is director of J-Ideas, a First Amendment institute in the Department of Journalism, College of Communication, Information and Media at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. J-Ideas supports excellence in student journalism, First Amendment awareness and news literacy.