Teaching freedom where it does not exist

by Paul McMasters First Amendment Ombudsman, The Freedom Forum

Thirty-seven teachers from Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee gathered at The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., in November for a conference designed to give them materials and training to better teach their students about the First Amendment.

Some would regard the effort as quixotic. Finding ways to teach freedom in an environment that offers little is a real challenge.

For all intents and purposes, the nation's schools are in educational lockdown. In the eyes of the public, the government and sometimes the courts, the nation's schools are in the same category as prisons and the military. In other words, safety, discipline and uniformity trump all educational goals, including the teaching of civics.

Teachers, as well as students, check their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door.

Parental fears, administrative dictates, curriculum demands and state-imposed standards crowd out the sort of lessons that prepare young people to fully function as informed citizens in the real world.

Every teacher at the conference seemed to have a sad tale to tell about how young minds and exuberant expectations were not just stifled but punished. Some of their stories:

  • Students expelled -- or even arrested -- for successfully responding to class assignments.
  • Candid answers in class discussions resulting in a trip to the principal's office, then home.
  • Students suspended for openly wearing religious symbols or T-shirts with political slogans.
  • Student newspapers routinely censored and shut down.
  • Students punished for material they post on their own Web pages at home.

reports, Spring 2000