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The high court and Hazelwood: chipping away at rights

Thank God that there are no free schools nor printing in this land, for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into this world, and printing hath divulged them. - William Berkeley, colonial

governor of Virginia in 1677

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Obedience and orthodoxy got a boost last week, and learning and printing took a beating at the hands of the United States Supreme Court. The high court upheld a decision by a high school principal in Hazelwood, Mo., to cut two stories, one on divorce and one on teen-age sexual activity, from the student newspaper.''

The court's message in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier is simple and clear: ``A school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission.'' The simplicity of the statement, though, should not blind us to the implications of the decision.

It would be dangerous to see this as an isolated incident. Over the last three years, the court has systematically chipped away at the principle it set out in 1969, in Tinker v. Des Moines, that ``it cannot be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.''

Yet in Bethel School District v. Fowler (1986), the court ruled that administrators had broad discretion in limiting student speech if, in the opinion of the administrator, that speech was lewd or indecent. A year earlier, in 1985, the court ruled that school officials need not be held to the same strict standards as police when conducting searches of student lockers, purses, or backpacks. If the court could argue in 1969 that students and teachers maintain their constitutional rights past the schoolhouse gates, it can do so only in a limited way today.

This erosion of the Constitution threatens to return us to a time not so far off when school officials operated as petty despots. The court seems determined to carve out a special place in the constitutional order for schools, a place where the Constitution is held in abeyance, where inquiry and expression can be stifled on the grounds that they do not match the school's ``educational mission.''

One central premise of the Hazelwood decision is that, freed from the harangue of noisy, inconvenient, and often critical student expression, schools will be able to get back to the basic business of educating. Yet this approach, with such a premium on order and authority, may very well be the worst one for schools serious about their ``educational mission.''

Simply put, intolerance of student expression is at odds with one of the central missions of every school: to teach democratic values, principles, and action.

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John Dewey reminded American educators in 1899 that ``it is easy to fall into the habit of regarding the mechanics of school organization and administration as something comparatively external and indifferent to educational ideals.''

The two, ideals and practice, cannot be divorced. A school preaching democracy while practicing tyranny is one in which hypocrisy and duplicity become, de facto, parts of the curriculum. The court, in 1943, made its fears in that regard clear. Schools that failed to protect the constitutional rights of individuals would ``strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.''

For Dewey and for the court, until recently, the issue was clear: The teaching of true civic virtue depended upon a school's willingness to allow students to practice democracy as well as read about it. Practicing democracy in schools does not mean chaos in the classroom or unlimited freedom for students.

Under ``Tinker,'' students and teachers were subject to the same rights and responsibilities that govern freedom of speech elsewhere in society. Tinker went even further, making the specific point that in schools, student expression that ``materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or the invasion of rights of others'' could not be construed as protected speech.

Dewey called schools ``embryonic communities.'' Incidents such as the one in Hazelwood should be used not as occasions for administrative action and legal reaction, but as ``teaching moments'' in which the rights and responsibilities of a free press are discussed and resolved.

Free speech is an important principle of our government. In this instance, it is also important to regard free speech as sound educational practice. If we are to train citizens, we must encourage them to practice responsible citizenship, in schools and out. There is no more ``basic educational mission'' for the public schools of America. Yet in the hands of the Supreme Court, that mission is threatened by the substitution of a vision of education and society that rests more on Berkeley's fear of disobedience and disorder than on Dewey's hope for liberty and democracy ... to our peril as a republic.

Theodore R. Mitchell is assistant professor of education and policy studies at Dartmouth College.

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