The Poky Little Pundit

The First Amendment Part 1: The Problem

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Most of you are probably blissfully unaware that 25 years ago, on January 13, 1988, students in public high schools across the country were quietly deprived of the full extent of their First Amendment right. The Supreme Court’s Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision allowed school administrators to censor speech they consider to be “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” The previous standard, set by Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, only allowed censorship if speech caused a ‘material and substantial disruption.’ Simply put, the Hazelwood standard gives administrators significant control over what young people are able to say, because just about anything can be twisted to fit a ‘pedagogical goal.’ I know this, because for four of my six years’ teaching in America, the Hazelwood standard – and a conservative principal – made my life a daily challenge.


How is this relevant to my life? you may be thinking. Well, it may not be, if you don’t care about protecting an individual’s freedom of speech. In which case, you can go back to North Korea and stay there. But if you are still reading, allow me to convince you that the rights we uphold for our young people – however small they may seem – are vitally important to a thriving, independently-minded nation.

Today commences Part 1 of 2 posts about one way we can defend the right to speak and write freely for all citizens. And it all started last Friday when I met up with a very wise friend of mine – a fellow Eastern Washingtonian with a giant smile and a deeply rooted knowledge of local politics.

He cemented my theory that the way for me to make the biggest difference is by capitalizing on my current knowledge base. Meaning education. Schools. We all know they need help, but how? The question is so complicated and difficult that most of us just keep ours head down, send our kids to school and hope they don’t end up as meth addicts.

He had many excellent ideas – all of which made me think: Yes! Let’s do that! Now! But then he explained to me how one actually goes about making those changes and everything went a bit fuzzy. Why is it so hard in our country to make good and necessary changes quickly? One idea, involving the sinking ship my son will soon board that is Seattle Public Schools, particularly interested me: Divide up the district into north, east, south and west, but make a statute requiring levy equalization (meaning all schools get the same amount of money). This makes just absolute perfect sense to me. It is so absurdly unfair that some schools have more money than others simply because of the price of houses in the neighborhood. But for this to happen, we need to change an entire population’s thought process.

Which brings me back to First Amendment rights for young people – again, fighting the fight that I can fight, if you follow me. My greatest joy in teaching has also been my greatest misery: the school paper. I advised The Barque, a student newspaper, for six years. Now to most of you in the ‘real world,’ running a school newspaper probably sounds like some cheesy after-school club. But it is more like a full-time job. School papers must fund themselves – like any other publication – with ads from businesses in order to stay solvent. And though only one issue a month is produced, the staff are 30 teenagers with six other classes, after-school sports and a social life, so story-writing, editing and laying out the paper must take place in the four hours available each week in class. Except it doesn’t. It gets done after school. Like, for hours upon hours after school. Teachers who take on this behemoth are paid an additional stipend, which roughly works out to be $3 an hour.

Many of you might be (rightly) thinking: Why would anyone willingly take this on? Frankly, teaching the same stuff, year after year, is boring. And making a newspaper is decidedly not. At my school, it also attracts some of the most dynamic, intelligent kids the school has to offer, so you have the added benefit of spending time with people who will likely be future leaders in our communities. People going to schools like Brown or Dartmouth. People who also like to stir shit up and make stuff better. My kind of people.

The Barque class

Gold-Medalist award-winning student journalists on The Barque (and me).

But it was the very dynamic qualities of these students that so challenged our now-departed conservative principal. In one memorable issue, my students wanted to write stories about drugs in our school – a real problem that impacted their daily lives. This was not to be. Under the Hazelwood ruling, the principal could easily justify limiting talk of drugs at school as ‘reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical goals.’ So an excellent story, in which an anonymous drug dealer at school spoke candidly of their experience dealing at school, was censored. If our district or school chose not to invoke Hazelwood, or if our school was in Oregon, this story would have run. Students and parents might have read this article and productive conversations about drugs at school might have commenced.

So what can be done? Stay tuned next Tuesday for The First Amendment Part 2: The solution.

In other PLP news, I faxed in my 15-page questionnaire for Progressive Majority last week, which basically asked me, ‘Do you agree with us?’ in 50 different ways. And apart from a few ideas, I did. We’ll see if I am ‘approved.’

I’ve also decided to get involved in YouthCare, an organization supporting Seattle’s homeless teenagers, after speaking to a friend who volunteers with them. It seems like an ideal fit as I can hopefully lend my English teaching skills to kids trying to pass their GED or working on letters to get jobs. I have to attend a volunteer initiation scheduled in late February before I can start, but in the meantime, I am looking for things to donate from my own home, such as sleeping bags, hooded sweatshirts and towels. Clean out those closets and perhaps I will see you there!


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