“Do you think high school students have the same right to free speech as adults?”
This warmup question, which I used for years as an introduction to teaching Tinker v. Des Moines to my Civil Liberties classes, sparked a heated discussion among teachers at a workshop I led earlier this week.
No issue is more on teachers’ minds right now – as we head back to school — than how to deal with the fallout of Charlottesville and the increasing exposure of neo-Nazi and white supremacist speech in our public spaces.
What do we do if a student shows up in class displaying a swastika?
What about a Confederate flag?
How can we facilitate conversation in social studies class, when one student’s “political” opinion is that other students don’t belong here?
How do we require tolerance and sensitivity toward other students, when parents might accuse us of a “liberal agenda”?
There are no easy answers. I’ve always believed student speech in public schools deserved broad protection and that we benefit from talking to people whose opinions are different from our own — rather than silencing them — but I’ve never been in a situation like this.
I’ve spent countless hours over the past 20 years explicitly teaching teenagers how to have civil conversations about sensitive topics like abortion and same-sex marriage and religion, but I’ve never had to deal with a student claiming a free speech right to express hatred. For the most part, until now, social norms were enough to stop them.
What do we do? How do we treat student speech in this new climate? I think Tinker is exactly where we should start.
When we immerse students in the facts of that particular case, which involved high school students (Mary Beth and John Tinker pictured, plus three others) wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War in 1965, we give them the opportunity to engage in a valuable meta-conversation about the power of speech itself. It forces them to step back from the highly charged public shouting match and think.
In my lesson, students are arbitrarily assigned to represent the Tinkers or the Des Moines public school district, and each side is provided with enough facts and court precedents to make effective points. They have 10 minutes to prepare, 3 minutes to argue, and 2 minutes to rebut (which, of course, requires listening to the other side).
In that short time, students quickly realize that the issue is much more complicated than “It’s my right to say what I want!” They realize they have to consider the school’s obligation to protect all students and promote education, the potential disruption speech can cause, and the responsibility that comes with a speaker’s rights.
When we read the court’s opinion – the second part of the lesson — they also realize that a school isn’t the same as a public park or street, that what is acceptable in one venue (what we see on TV) isn’t necessarily OK at school – no matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on. These are important starting points for shaping our discussion norms in class.
As we head back to school this fall, we need to make our classrooms safe places for students to discuss ideas, but we also need to make them safe places for all of our students to be. It’s going to be difficult to achieve both these goals, especially in schools with diverse student bodies.
We need to be ready.
My lesson on Tinker v. Des Moines will be distributed to NeverBore.org subscribers tomorrow. If you’re interested, go to NeverBore.org and sign up.