Educational Free Speech Op-Ed

Cash Mendenhall, Assistant Editor

Disclaimer: The editorial opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by student journalists in this high school newspaper do not necessarily reflect the official positions or policies of the Board of Education for Salt Lake City School District, the Salt Lake City School District, or West High School.

Two weeks ago, Senator Lincoln Fillmore (R-South Jordan) proposed a regulation in the Utah Legislature to alter the social studies curriculums of the state of Utah in a fundamental, fractious way. His resolution would allow for parents to edit, veto, and alter the local social studies curriculum their children learn, putting the very viability of the history students learn up for debate. It provoked a broad and immediate backlash, from representatives to educational advocacy groups to teachers. Rep. Karen Kwan (D-Murray) wrote that the resolution “implied that social studies is subjective, which it is not”. The phrase “witch hunt” came up often. Deborah Gatrell, who teaches at Hunter High School, wrote that “the ‘witches’ are social studies teachers who dare discuss current events.” The intensity of the reaction, though, seemed disproportionate. The bill itself is largely inconsequential – it’s still in draft form, Utah politics has largely moved on, and the likelihood that it survives committee is low. In a state as geographically polarized as ours, proposals for state laws that stoke the embers of rage over constitutional rights are not entirely uncommon. Politics in Salt Lake are radically different from the consensus in the rest of the state, and as such legislation is often met with an extremely wide range of reactions. But the bill landed in a vulnerable moment nationally – coming on the heels of a Supreme Court decision on the very speaking rights of students this summer and an explosive local debate over critical race theory. The rights of students and teachers to engage with politics in an educational environment has remained, resiliently, in the news. Colleges often end up on the opposite end of this pendulum, with conservative politicians and pundits frequently bringing up cases of historical revision or sociopolitical debates on university campuses. To broaden the scope further, 2020 brought about considerable national coverage of the way that schools reacted to the largest American racial justice movement in decades. Over lockdown, stories dealing with student protests and social media posts, as well as the way that educators treated Black Lives Matter, were commonplace. In the midst of a tenuous national moment and a polarizing presidency, the focus on social studies curriculums in public schools became acute, and we’ve yet to fully process the implications of this debate. Free speech in schools is becoming a salient issue – and one that has vitally prescient implications on the West community.

Schools hold a hallowed place in a society, as the emblem of education is uniquely universal, and uniquely personal. Few spheres of publicly owned life interact with us for as long as education does, and the inflection of education on children is a deeply important part of the rest of our lives. The largely apolitical nature of the school system allows it to avoid much of the vitriol surrounding other federal institutions, but the image of schools as a tool of the government is a longstanding one. The phenomenon of systemic theories of partisanship tends to arise at times of perceived domestic crisis – it defines a way of seeing the world that views supposedly benign public programs as secretly corrupting, propagandizing, or otherwise nefarious. Hollywood, the financial industry, the media, and politicians are the most frequent targets of this ire. Anti-Semitism and racism are frequently intertwined with worldviews such as these, and religiosity (or at least religious language) is frequently invoked – the ‘moral decline of America’ is a phrase that’s been part of our public discourse since the 1970s. This view of massive, crippling, pervasive corruption festers in uncertain moments – the Nixon Administration, the aftermath of 9/11, and the election of Donald Trump stand out as obvious examples. And in these times of political upheaval, schools have always been targeted. The World Wars saw censorship of educational curriculum and the direct use of propaganda in classrooms, the Cold War brought out debates around American representation in social studies, and the Vietnam War in many ways set the standards of free speech in educational institutions. Tinker vs. Des Moines, a Supreme Court decision that asserted the right to First Amendment protest within campuses, laid out a precedent surrounding the free speech of schools that remains primary in the legal understanding of such cases. Colleges held much of the counterculture movement during the war, and the back-and-forth duels between the students and faculty of educational institutions and the pro-war segments of government and the public consumed headlines. The targeting of schools in politically tenuous periods is not unusual. But it is extremely dangerous.

Much has been made of the lack of common reality in global politics. Partisanship, political contention, and the increase of democratic backsliding in developed countries can be tied directly back to the increased siloing of media input and the lack of common informational input. These lethal separations between interpretations of political commonality lead to an inherently divergent perception of who we are – political disagreements become personal enmity, and the respect and efficacy of our discourse dissolve. Algorithmic media, the growth of corporate news, and the internet can all be adequately blamed for this deficiency in the way we understand each other. But education breeds greater understanding, and it creates within itself a venue for discourse and closer ties to one another. Education is the greatest preclusion against extremism, and the dissolution of our politics can be cut at the root with a common foundation of educational empathy. We can’t constrict public schools to get there. From the censorship of books to the editing of history classes, it sets a dangerous precedent to place subjective moral values over objective institutional fact. Education is not, and must never become, a political construct. The muzzling of educators and students is incredibly destructive, and the free speech of our schools is necessary in fostering a truly democratic civil society. The key ingredient in suppression of speech is fear, and the greatest preventive of fear is knowledge. We must petition for the rights of our teachers and the rights of our representation, and schools are the fundamental proving grounds of such liberties. We solve this problem by teaching. To sacrifice freedoms for moral securities is an unwise bargain. We will find ourselves with little of both.