Magazine Feature

Is Freedom Safe?

A First Amendment project challenges schools to take liberties seriously.

Stephanie Cuadrado has had enough. "I don't even see why you teach us this stuff, Mister," she barks. "All this doesn't mean a thing to me, because nobody respects what we have to say in this school anyway."

My U.S. History & Government class is talking about the First Amendment and the rights of students. Stephanie's initial burst of anger sets the tone for the rest of the class, who redirect our subject and launch into a series of disturbing stories of humiliation and powerlessness at school. Stephanie goes on to relate a particularly unnerving experience.

"This hall monitor stopped me last week," she begins, her facial muscles constricting at the memory. "I told him I was on my way to class and I couldn't afford to be any later because there was a test, but he just laughed and said, 'You shouldn't even bother. You're never going to graduate anyway.'"

The day that event occurred, I was teaching at a large public school in New York City, where I was still new enough to question the accuracy of my students' stories. As the semester progressed, however, I witnessed firsthand the charged atmosphere between adults and students at school. Simply put, the administration felt the only way to treat students like Stephanie, who could be gruff and confrontational, was by authoritarian rule. It was easier, in the interest of discipline and "safety," to remove their voices from the school's inner workings.

This rigidity may have produced a desirable code of silence and order during fire drills, but it also prevented the students from developing a set of ethical standards they could use to make informed, responsible decisions. As a result, I watched students get pushed and prodded until they became what was expected of them: troublesome kids with too much attitude and a penchant for making the wrong decisions.

Although many schools in America do create a positive sense of community and provide their students with the necessary intellectual and moral "equipment" for living, too many do not. For students like Stephanie, it is clearly not enough to isolate American civics to the classroom. How can we also find ways to model and apply the democratic principles we are charged with teaching, and help ensure that all members of the school community have a voice in the decisions that shape the learning process and their lives?


Fear of Freedom

As a starting point for answering this question, the First Amendment Center and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) conducted a national survey to discover what public school teachers and administrators think about the role of the First Amendment in schools. The study was commissioned to coincide with the launch of First Amendment Schools: Educating for Freedom and Responsibility, a multi-year partnership between ASCD and the Center that is designed to transform how schools model and teach the civic framework of the First Amendment.

Here are some of the key findings from the study:

  • Although educators demonstrate greater knowledge of First Amendment freedoms than the general public, roughly one in five cannot recall any of the five freedoms.
  • While a majority of educators (63%) rate American schools "excellent" or "good" regarding First Amendment education, just 28% of the public give the same rating.
  • By more than a two-to-one margin, educators disagree that "students at public high schools should be allowed to report on controversial issues in their student newspapers without approval of school authorities."
  • Despite recent national guidelines on religious expression that were distributed by the Department of Education in 2000, an alarming 69% of teachers and 39% of administrators were "not at all" familiar with them.

Given this widespread lack of understanding, the current willingness to restrict student rights is not surprising. What results, however, is a belief that students should learn about democracy but not necessarily be allowed to practice democracy -- at least not in the school setting.

Because of this "fear of freedom," educators and students are increasingly finding themselves on opposite sides of an ideological divide, with both sides battling to decide whose version of the First Amendment will win out. The most recent examples suggest just how much is at stake:

  • A 16-year-old boy was suspended for lampooning his band teacher on a private Web site. The boy sued, claiming his First Amendment rights had been violated. Eventually, school officials were forced to settle with the student by writing him a letter of apology and paying him $30,000.
  • Just weeks after the school shootings in Santee, Calif., a New Jersey school adopted a zero tolerance policy to increase school safety. Despite their good intentions, the policy resulted in nearly 50 suspensions in the first six weeks, most of which were meted out to children between 5 and 9 years old. Police files were opened on all those suspended, including the kindergartners.
  • The Louisiana Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of an 11-year-old Muslim student who refused to accept a Bible from her principal. She had already been forced to participate in a classroom quiz about Jesus. Commenting on the lawsuit, the student's mother said, "The issue here is not whether one religion or faith is better than another, but about forcing one's faith on another person with no respect for that other person's right to practice their own beliefs." In September 2001, a federal court ruled that the distribution of Bibles by the school violated the Constitution.

This confusion about First Amendment principles presents two key challenges to schools and communities: First, how do we reform education about the First Amendment for school officials as well as for students? Second, how can we help educators and communities develop school cultures that encourage intellectual openness, protect dissent and cultivate civility and respect so that how we debate becomes as important as what we debate?

Ask Charles Haynes, the First Amendment Center's Senior Scholar, and he'll tell you that's where the First Amendment Schools Project comes in. According to Haynes, the project is "built on the conviction that the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment are a cornerstone of American democracy and essential for citizenship in a diverse society.

"What our nation's schools need to understand," says Haynes, "is that the First Amendment isn't part of the reason for unsafe schools; it's the solution that helps to create safer schools."

Any school interested in applying First Amendment principles will carry out that mission in varying ways, since the program doesn't establish a series of mandates. Instead, according to Haynes, "what unites First Amendment Schools is not one view of democratic education or the First Amendment, but rather an abiding commitment to teach and model the rights and responsibilities that undergird the First Amendment."

The First Amendment isn't part of the reason for unsafe schools; it's the solution that helps to create safer schools.

Echoing Haynes' sentiments, Dr. Gene Carter, executive director at ASCD, believes the project's goals became even more vital after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"At ASCD," says Carter, "we believe that schools have an obligation to provide students with the guidance they need as they wrestle with these new complex and emotionally laden issues. We believe that in a democracy, it is essential that schools provide students with access to reliable information and a variety of perspectives so that they can develop their capacities to make educated, rational and compassionate judgments. Schools need to help students carefully weigh questions about the meaning of justice, the balance between our civil liberties and public safety, and our responsibilities to one another as citizens and human beings."


First Amendment Schools

Although one of the goals of the First Amendment Schools Project is to develop an initial group of ten project schools, the main objective is to provide valuable resources to all schools. "And it may surprise you," says Haynes, "but there are a number of schools out there that are already applying First Amendment principles and achieving success."

One such place is McLean High School, located in the suburbs of Virginia. According to Becky Sipos, a member of McLean's English department and the faculty advisor to the school's award-winning newspaper, The Highlander, "the school has a strong commitment for students to learn civic virtue and moral character." One way the school accomplishes this, says Sipos, is by actively applying First Amendment principles in the school's culture. The Highlander is the centerpiece of that commitment. "We really emphasize the importance of a free press," says Sipos. "We stress the ethical responsibilities of reporters to be accurate, balanced and fair, and we analyze our coverage periodically to make sure that we are covering the entire school, not just popular groups and activities."

Sipos notes that the emphasis on rights and responsibilities is not limited to the school paper. "The values of McLean -- respect, responsibility and integrity -- and our honor code are taught to freshmen the first week of school as part of our Freshman Ethics Seminar." In addition, she says, "the administrators are very supportive of First Amendment principles. The principal comes to the newspaper classroom for regular press conferences and gives the students easy access to ask him difficult questions. And the administrators send memos reminding teachers of religious holidays so that teachers will take care in respecting the religious practices that are not well known."

Similarly, Park Day, an independent school in Oakland, Calif., approaches education from the belief that each child is unique and that children should be encouraged to learn, to think, to pursue their own curiosity, and to develop a strong sense of values. Unlike McLean, however, Park Day is granting these freedoms to elementary-age children.

Mona Hallaby, a teacher at Park Day and the author of the recent book Belonging: Creating Community in the Classroom, believes that the first way to achieve this sense of community in young children is by holding weekly class meetings. At the meetings, teachers help students "see the cause and effects of their actions, name their conflicts, and feel the public repercussions for their actions." As the year progresses, said Hallaby, "all the members of the classroom begin to feel safe, because they are seen and recognized as members of a classroom community."

Hallaby believes there are two central principles to which all educators should adhere: "One, positive change cannot occur in isolation. In order for children to feel supported, the whole class, not just their teacher, must be cheering for them, and believing that transformations can occur. And two, classroom power has to be shared among its members. Children are more likely to learn if they're included in the process of running the classroom and making decisions."

Martha Ball, a lifelong educator from Salt Lake City, Utah, couldn't agree more. "I use First Amendment principles as my classroom management tool," she said, "and it always surprises me to see how many of my students have never been asked directly by a teacher to participate in determining the shared values of their class."

Several years ago, Ball witnessed her students at Butler Middle School struggle with the growing pains of increasing diversity in their community. Under Ball's leadership, however, Butler "has [since] created a mini-experiment in liberty, about how we can learn to live with our deepest differences, and create an atmosphere of respect for the rights of others." By Ball's own admission, "it's taken time, but if the adults believe in the principles, and work to model them fully and honestly, then the result will be students who are more sensitive to the rights of others, and who have a greater awareness of what it means to live and work for the common good."

Ball and the other teachers at Butler begin this "mini-experiment" the second day of class each year, by developing and voting on a class code of conduct. "What they discover," observes Ball, "is that everyone is interested in one central principle: respect. Once that is established, I show them that our list of rules means nothing, nor does our commitment to respect, unless we understand the responsibility we each have to guard those rights for one another.

"What we teach our students all day," Ball says, "is about how societies are formed and what people have historically held to be most important. But our students need to understand what it means to live in a democracy, and what our ideals look like and feel like when they are applied throughout a community. If our children aren't taught in schools how to exercise these rights with responsibility, then who will teach them, and where will they learn this valuable lesson?"

But can we do all of this in our schools? We must. In fact, our need to do so is even more urgent than before. As President Bush said soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, "freedom and fear are at war, [and] the advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us." He may be right. But that means educators have a unique responsibility. As Martha Ball made clear, it is unrealistic to ask students to defend First Amendment principles if we don't help them learn about what it is they're defending.

The Hon. Learned Hand -- one of the country's greatest judges and certainly the judge with the greatest name -- warned us against becoming too complacent in our appreciation of these freedoms. As he said, "I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it."

Or, in the words of another great legal mind, Justice William Brennan, "the framers knew that liberty is a fragile thing, and so should we."

Add to an Existing Learning Plan
    Illustration of person holding and looking at laptop.

    New Virtual Workshops Are Available Now!

    Registrations are now open for our 90-minute virtual open enrollment workshops. Explore the schedule, and register today—the first workshop begins October 16th and space is limited!

    Sign Up!