Teach Your Children Well

August 20, 2007

Gene Policinski, executive director and vice president of the First Amendment Center, has a column in Ohio’s Chillicothe Gazette lamenting “[t]he combination of school abandonment of support for free press and speech and court decisions in the last two decades.” Policinski summarizes the numerous court decisions and other incidents eroding high school students’ free speech rights over the last few years, and expresses real concern over a generation of students being educated in censorship. He writes:

We can all agree that realistic threats of violence in school merit realistic responses by authorities. And I have yet to find even strident First Amendment advocates who disagree that student journalists need education, training and adult advice.

But what are we teaching students—our future fellow citizens—about the value of a free press when a well-written, mild-mannered essay is reason for killing off a student publication and removing the adviser?

What are we telling students about the value of free speech when the good ones are reprimanded, suspended, expelled or even face criminal charges for musings that likely would have sent a prior generation to after-school detention, at most?

He also quotes Mark Goodman, head of the Student Press Law Center, who says that “[l]arge numbers of students are learning that government does have the power to control the content” of newspapers and speech. What will happen to these students when they go to college, and then out into the real world? Will they stand up for the principles of free speech enshrined in the First Amendment, or will they simply have been taught to accept limits on speech that earlier generations would have found entirely unacceptable? As FIRE cofounder Alan Charles Kors has said, “a nation that does not educate in freedom will not long preserve it, and it will not even know when it has lost it.”