Who will teach the "teachers?"





Emboldened, perhaps, by their seeming omnipotence, some school officials in the post-Hazelwood era have trained their sights on new ground. No longer content with controlling student speech and opinion on campus during the school day, an increasing number of school officials have begun to look beyond the schoolhouse gate, to speech by citizens – who also happen to be students – that occurs long after the last bell has rung. Witness the case of Brandon Beussink.

In February 1998, using his home computer and his family’s private Internet account, Beussink put up a personal Web page. The page criticized officials and policies at Woodland High School, in Marble Hill, Mo., where Beussink was a 16-year-old junior. It also chided the school’s official Web site. While the page included its share of “earthy” language, the speech was not libelous or otherwise illegal.

Within hours of their discovering his Web site, school officials suspended Beussink for 10 days and used his absences to fail him in all of his classes, making it impossible for him to graduate with his classmates in June 1999.

Our question: what on earth were Woodland High School officials thinking? Or were they thinking at all? Had they even heard of the First Amendment? Did they care? Apparently not. When Beussink dared to challenge their conduct, eventually even providing school officials with a detailed letter from the American Civil Liberties Union explaining why the First Amendment prohibited such action, the school’s lawyer simply responded that Beussink should “suck it up” and “take his punishment like a man.” No deals.

We wish we could say this was an isolated case. It is not. Similar incidents involving personal Web sites have been reported to the SPLC from Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan and Washington State. Likewise, almost every week, students continue to be threatened and disciplined by school administrators for “daring” to publish independent or underground publications – both on and off-campus – despite the clear legal protections for such speech. When reminded of the First Amendment, the response is often much like that of Woodland High School officials: We don’t care what the Constitution says. This is our school.

The civics lesson of the 90’s.

Fortunately, a Missouri federal district court judge saw the lunacy of their ways and issued a preliminary injunction in late December barring the school from using Beussink’s suspension when tabulating grades or from punishing or restricting him from posting his Web page.

Unfortunately, the larger, more troubling question remains: how did we reach this point? How is it that so many of those we have charged with educating our next generation of citizens exhibit such utter ignorance – or contempt – for those basic freedoms upon which our democracy is based? We should expect more. Certainly the Supreme Court once did.

In 1943, the Court upheld the First Amendment right of students to refuse to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. It based its decision, in part, on the need of schools to teach democracy by example.

“That [schools] are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.”

Pity, the words sound radical today.


reports, Winter 1998-99