Port: “American public schools are the nurseries of democracy”

Not just nationally, but right here in our region.

In Fargo, right-wing activists are trying to recall members of the local school board because of, among other things, the perceived promotion of critical race theory.

In Wahpeton, there was public outrage from left-wing parents after a teacher allowed a discussion about George floyd to progress to a point where the students re-enacted the scene from the infamous video showing his death. This prompted Superintendent Rick Jacobson to insist that her district does not “support or condone any activity that would make students uncomfortable in the learning environment.”

I disagree with Jacobson’s sentiment, as I noted in a previous column, but I believe in trying to quell popular outrage in his district he stumbled upon what is stirring up the dismay in our schools.

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Many, from parents to administrators, teachers to students, cannot tolerate things that make them uncomfortable.

It is in this environment that the Supreme Court of the United States issued a new opinion on the state of free speech rights of students.

In an 8-1 decision, the court found that a Pennsylvania school district had violated the First Amendment rights of Brandi levy, then 14, when they suspended her from the cheerleading squad after she embarked on a jaded rant inspired by her failure to make the varsity squad.

Levy and his teenage temper tantrum don’t make the friendliest plaintiffs, but the court ruling matters.

Not since the historic 1969 decision in Tinker vs. Des Moines, when the court upheld the speaking rights of students protesting the Vietnam War with black armbands, was such a step taken to protect the rights of students.

It is not a perfect decision. In the brief majority opinion Judge Stephen Breyer, working very hard to draw limits on the ability of schools to act against student discourse outside of school hours and outside of class, said the in loco parentis doctrine four times.

It is a doctrine that deals with the unique roles that teachers and school administrators play.

As parents, we cannot violate our children’s First Amendment rights (although my 13 year old tried to argue this in our living room). Teachers and school officials are agents of the state, which means that they fall under the restrictions of the constitution on the abbreviation of speech and religion, etc. In loco parentis argues that teachers, responsible for the care and education of students in the school setting, may be viewed as parental roles and therefore may be given some leeway from more stringent applications of constitutional prohibitions.

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Breyer’s opinion, while excellent for student voice rights outside of school, is not so great for student rights in schools.

But beyond the legal specifics, Breyer’s opinion, with only Judge Clarence Thomas dissenting, provides us with a few words we could all live with as we battle cultural war issues in our schools.

Schools have “an interest in protecting a student’s unpopular expression, especially when the expression takes place off campus, as US public schools are breeding grounds for democracy,” he wrote.

“Our representative democracy only works if we protect the ‘market for ideas’,” he continued.

I think many of us can agree that our representative democracy is not working particularly well right now. Large swathes of Americans do not trust their political leaders, their opinion leaders, or even the election results.

Meanwhile, in our schools – the “democracy daycare centers” – we are at war with each other over the types of speech we are going to allow.

Can you imagine being a teacher or administrator today? Terrified that a day of class discussion on a controversial topic could become the headline of tomorrow, with the kind of mob justice on social media that has become de rigueur in such controversies?

Breyer is right.

America cannot function if Americans, including our students, cannot speak out without fear of being canceled.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, Founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Contact him on Twitter at @robport or by email at [email protected]

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