Most of you have heard by now about the shamefully duplicitous treatment of peaceful anti-war protesters by the Berwyn (IL) school district superintendent. A group of students who protested the Iraq War at Morton West High School by gathering in the cafeteria, holding hands and singing the execrable “Kumbaya,” and speaking about their concerns about American policy were slapped with extensive suspensions. Despite a supposed deal with that superintendent that led them to move their protest outside to avoid causing “disruption to the learning process,” (I assume that there was testing going on since students in many schools are now tested more than they’re taught) they face expulsion.
Yes, I know that students’ rights to protest have been circumscribed by the courts and that school administrators have the right to punish students who participate in sit-ins or other peaceful forms of protest (violence is another issue). I also know that kids can be unruly and mouthy. But the news reportage of this event seems consistent – these students were peaceful, they obeyed teacher, dean, and superintendent directives to temper their protest and move their protest venue. These facts are not in dispute.
What is in dispute is whether kids who speak out against authority should be manipulated and dealt with treacherously – all in the name of “good administration” and “strict discipline.”
Here’s what the 1st Amendment (it’s part of the Constitution of the United States, so some readers may not recognize it) says:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
This seems plain enough on the surface of it. People can get together peaceably and complain about the government if they are unhappy with its policies. Notice that the Constitution (that musty old document that some in this country seem to be interested in revising to suit their purposes – or ditching altogether) says nothing about where they must assemble. It only says they must do so peaceably. These students were exercising their 1st Amendment rights of peaceable assembly to petition for redress of grievances. They weren’t protesting against school policies or regulations. They were speaking out (another of those rights guaranteed by the above amendment) against their government’s policies in Iraq.
What I’m getting at here is that all the other limitations placed on the 1st Amendment are the result of 220 years of well or ill intentioned “interpretation” of the law. Now I know something about interpretation – in training to be a professor I learned lots and lots about “hermeneutics” (the study of theories of interpretation). And I know full well that interpretation can be colored by political, aesthetic, or social biases. And I suggest to you that when you hear anyone – especially a judge, lawyer, law enforcement official, or “person in charge” – say to you, “The law is the law,” you can be sure that it isn’t. “The law” is what whoever has the power to enforce their will says it is.
But kids don’t know that. They read in history books – or hear from parents or teachers – about civil rights or war protesters in the 1960’s who brought universities – or cities – to screeching halts. They see students risking their lives to demand democracy in Pakistan. They see the high price paid by students in Tiananmen Square for trying to bring free speech and democratic action to China. And their teachers crow to them about the proud words of American orators like Patrick Henry – “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”
Or maybe the kids stumbled upon this quote by Thomas Jefferson, and, in their innocence and their gullible belief in the idea of America, were inspired to action by these words: “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”
Of course, failing to remain silent can get you expelled. At least, that’s the lesson these students are learning. So maybe these kids would have been better off listening to this advice from The Who’s rock opera Tommy:
Put in your ear plugs/Put on your eye shades/You know where to put the cork.
And soon enough they’ll learn what Pete Townshend said another time is true:
Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss….
That’s an educational experience I know we can be proud they’ve learned.