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Years ago, I was a guest teacher at an East Harlem high school. Most of the students in the class were Latino, including a group of boys in the back of the room who professed little knowledge of English and whispered among themselves about subjects that had nothing to do with my attempt to explain why we have a Bill of Rights. Hoping to lure them upfront, I started to talk about labor law — specifically, the right to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining. “If there were a student union in this school,” I asked, “what would you want in the contract between the students, the faculty, and the principal?” A girl in the front row suggested establishing a way to appeal disciplinary punishments. Suddenly, the boys in the back broke out of their huddle and moved forward. It turned out they had understated their command of English, and now they enthusiastically added other provisions to this hypothetical contract. One wanted to bargain for elective courses not in the curriculum — for example, the history of the Puerto Rican independence movement. By the end of the hour, we had an animated discussion, all the more so after I told them about the Supreme Court’s 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District — in which Justice Abe Fortas memorably wrote: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Of course, this First Amendment principle is still strenuously resisted by many teachers, principals, and school boards. As for that spirited discussion of student bargaining rights in East Harlem, I felt guilty afterward at having raised their expectations of democracy in the classroom — although I had cautioned them that we were engaged only in speculation, not in real life. I knew that the principal of that high school considered the notion of student rights to be synonymous with anarchy. But today there is a serious effort to change such attitudes. The Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, based in Arlington, Va., has launched a national First Amendment Schools project for kindergarten through 12th grade. The hope is to teach the First Amendment more comprehensively and to actually implement it in daily school life. (The coordinator of this worthy effort is Sam Chaltain, and the center’s partner is the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a professional organization for leaders in education.) Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, says that the project will identify currently existing “First Amendment classrooms” as models for this Madisonian adventure. In the center’s weekly “Legal Alert,” he writes:
Visit Karen Claborn’s history classes in Brea, California, for example, and you’ll see class “constitutions” written and signed by all the kids, as well as the teacher. “Each individual has the responsibility to respect the rights of others,” is the motto of one class. If you ask her, Mrs. Claborn will tell you that when students are given a real voice in determining the kind of classroom they want, discipline problems go way down and learning goes way up.

Haynes also cites McLean (Va.) High School, where, in Wednesday afternoon press conferences, “student reporters ask tough questions of the principal and vice-principal. Unlike the many schools that require prior administrative approval before articles on controversial issues appear in the school newspaper, McLean gives students opportunities to practice freedom of the press. At the same time, the school ensures that young reporters learn ethical guidelines for fair and responsible journalism.” And at Park Day School in Oakland, Calif., “elementary [school] kids have class meetings each week to talk about their concerns and problems. They’ll discuss everything from difficulties with school computers to the challenges of making new friends. And they’ll come up with ideas for improving the classroom and the school.” These, and other schools concerned about teaching and living the values of free speech, a free press, freedom of religion, the right to assemble and the right to petition those in authority, will be asked to submit applications for grants from the First Amendment Schools project. The first 10 grants of $12,000 each will be awarded in May 2002. The First Amendment Center notes that the grants are part of a three-year commitment, which can be renewed annually, contingent upon the school’s progress. My initial reaction to the size of the grants was that they should be higher. While some school administrators, already self-selected as nurturers of the First Amendment, will not be that concerned about the money, other potential participants might wonder if $12,000 is enough to compensate for the anticipated conflicts with school boards, other administrators and teachers over actually respecting students’ First Amendment rights in everyday classroom situations. But as First Amendment Center ombudsman Paul McMasters points out, if more and more schools join the project (which is certainly the hope), the funds needed will mount considerably. Maybe some benefactor — perhaps an admirer of Hugo Black, William O. Douglas or William Brennan Jr. — might be moved to add to the purse. Law schools could chip in (and look to their own First Amendment culture as well). In the First Amendment Schools mission statement, Haynes emphasizes that schools may carry out this project “in ways that vary greatly, depending on the age of the students, the size of the school, the needs of the local community, and whether the school is public or private. 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.” More precisely, what should the schools be doing? According to Haynes, they must encourage freedom of expression, provide for a free student press, support broad involvement in student governance, and protect religious liberty. In May, the First Amendment Center also held a series of roundtable discussions on how to challenge the widespread views that students must be kept in their place — particularly in this time of “zero tolerance.” In lively attendance were principals, students, representatives of conservative and liberal advocacy groups, civil liberties and school board lawyers, librarians and parents. According to the center’s summary of events, Sarah Griffin, a student at a small private school in Brooklyn, responded to a statement by Haynes that the central objective of the First Amendment Schools project is to help “change school cultures.” Immediately seeing the connection between that goal and the specifics of her life, Griffin described her school as “too liberal” on some issues, which, she felt, leads to the silencing of more conservative students. She called this a “fundamentalism of the left” that hardly encourages the sharing of ideas. Helen Stephan, social studies chair at McLean High School, described a “leadership” class at her school, where the students address school-related issues on their own before adults come into the picture. The students have tackled and solved problems relating, for example, to the dress code and cafeteria cleanliness without adult guidance. This experience, Stephan said, gives the students a greater sense of their own stake in the community. Stephan also spoke of the school’s student congress. Adults can attend the monthly meetings only by invitation. Even though the administration still makes the final decisions, the fact that there is a regular means for students to provide their input, Stephan suggested, has also helped create a sense of community at the high school. I spent six years at Boston Latin School, which was founded in 1635, and where the teachers had to be called “masters,” and most acted that way. Any proposals from a student would have been regarded by the principal and faculty as requiring an insertion in college recommendations that the student was a troublemaker. But then such revolutionary ideas would never have occurred to any of us. The First Amendment Schools project may create a revolution. Nat Hentoff is a longtime columnist for The Village Voice, a syndicated columnist for United Media/NEA, and a columnist for Editor & Publisher magazine. He has written numerous books, including “Living the Bill of Rights” (1998) and “Speaking Freely” (1997).

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