My Turn: How will students learn constitutional values?

Posted: Wednesday, March 06, 2002

Your Feb. 28 story and My Turn column on the suspension of JDHS student Joseph Frederick for displaying the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner during the Olympic Torch Relay raise a few questions I think are worth asking.

First, in his decision upholding the 10-day suspension, Juneau School Superintendent Gary Bader wrote that Mr. Frederick "was not disciplined because the principal of the school 'disagreed' with his message, but because his speech appeared to advocate the use of illegal drugs." Isn't concern over what the banner advocated a concern over the content of speech? Isn't it clear that Mr. Frederick was punished for the content of his message? Does anyone really believe that "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" will encourage students to use drugs?

Second, Superintendent Bader wrote that "students cannot be permitted to display speech that undermines the school's mission and disrupts school events, argue with their principal and defy the lawful directives of teachers and school administrators." I find some of that offensive. Why shouldn't students be allowed to argue with their principal? Why can't students be allowed to display speech that questions school policies or other matters of interest to students? Is there no reasonable place and time on school grounds for students to publicly protest something with banners, signs or by other means?

I gather that the incident involving Mr. Frederick occurred across the street from the high school. I wasn't there, so I don't know how "disruptive" it was. It sounds like the reactions of administrators and the police were more disruptive than displaying the banner was. I'm left with the impression, once again, that the school administrators are primarily concerned with maintaining authority, order, and control.

Apparently students in public are to say and do nothing spontaneous, nothing unapproved, nothing controversial.

In this instance, the meaning and value of the message on the banner are not clear to me. It is clear, however, that students' freedom of speech is implicated. According to Mr. Frederick's father, the incident was designed at least partially as an experiment to test the limits of free speech. It might have been a more meaningful test if, say, the banner had proposed boycotting the Olympics because Salt Lake City civic leaders had bribed members of the Olympic site selection committee. I tend to think that school administrators would have reacted the same way, though I guess we'll never know.

My main concern is this: How will our students learn constitutional values, such as freedom of speech and assembly, if they are not allowed to exercise them while in school? Don't we want to teach our children to become citizens who will understand and protect our most cherished political values? I want students who will question authority, not students who are cowed into submission and silence.

Ed Hein of Juneau works for a federal agency and is a former newspaper reporter and editor.

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