The High Cost of Free Speech

by Paul D. Houston

I was looking through one of the better-known education newspapers not long ago when I was struck by several articles. One carried a story on superintendent ethics (or lack thereof) and featured a number of accusations of superintendents who had taken money or favors from vendors without disclosing their connections to their school boards.


The newspaper also published a story about how the federal government had paid “journalists” to promote the No Child Left Behind law. Again, there was no disclosure about the payment or the connection to the government. It was pretty clear this was an attempt to make an unpopular law more popular.

Then there was a story about a conservative education group that had received more than $30 million in grants from the government to “study” issues that the government was promoting. I was reminded of a politician I once knew who was caught giving contracts to his neighbors. His response: “If you can’t help your friends, then who are you going to help?”

It is dangerous for a democracy when those who speak for the government are rewarded and those who raise questions are punished.

Minimal Appreciation
All this came on the heels of watching cable networks take apart a professor in Colorado who had published an article about 9/11 that was highly controversial for its perspective and choice of language. As I write this, a major effort is under way to fire him for his views. It appears that free speech stops at the point someone says something that most of us don’t like.


But the piece that I saw that most disturbed me was about a recent study of high school students and their understanding and views of Americans’ First Amendment rights. The study commissioned by the Knight Foundation found nearly three-fourths of high school students don’t know how they feel about the First Amendment or don’t understand it. Again, three-fourths of those surveyed thought flag burning is illegal or should be, and one-half think the government can and should be able to censor the Internet. More than a third think the First Amendment goes too far in its guarantees. Hodding Carter, president of the Knight Foundation, said he found this “not only disturbing but dangerous. … Ignorance about the basics of our society is a danger to our nation’s future.”

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, believes much of the problem came not from just the schools not teaching the right things but from the very atmosphere of schools themselves. He pointed out that the “prison-like” environment of schools inhibits the practices that would allow children to understand their freedoms better. It is indeed hard to promote freedom of speech by telling people to sit down and shut up.

Now I am not one to jump all over schools every time a study comes out. However, I have pointed out myself that our schools too often resemble prisons in their sociology. As we have had concern for safety they have become even more fortress-like. This is something we all should worry about. AASA has been promoting the need to stand up for public education and one of the major elements of doing so would be to help children prepare themselves for citizenship in a democratic setting.

Certainly, public education provides the cornerstone for our democracy and as educators we have an obligation to help our children understand better the rights and responsibilities of taking leadership in our communities. First we must give them the understandings and background knowledge they need to know what it is to be a citizen in a democracy. And we must provide a setting that models these things by allowing them the rights afforded to them under our constitution.

However, I think if we merely see the study as a school problem, we once again will miss the point. When Bin Laden and his henchmen knocked down the Twin Towers, they were attacking much more than our economic center. They were attacking what our country stands for--our values. President Bush has said many times the terrorists hated freedom and what it stood for. We have even morphed our efforts in Iraq to become a fight for democracy in the Middle East. Making others free allows our spirits to soar with their possibilities. Spreading the gifts of democracy is a worthy mission. But talking about something doesn’t make it so. Lest we get too carried away, let’s return to some of those other headlines.

If we want our children to be model citizens, we must model our own citizenship and that means we have to be purer than Caesar’s wife. We have to make certain that what we do as leaders is transparent and ethical. We have to be careful we are not using our positions for personal gain.

Democracy’s Value But we also must demand that our government does the same. Twisting the truth for political expediency or promoting favored programs by buying favorable reviews is not honest and it doesn’t reflect American values. Not only is that speech not free—it is highly costly. Working only with those who agree with us does not promote diversity in our thinking or actions. Democracy comes when we learn to work with those who disagree with us.


Yet the biggest lesson we can pass on to our children is that democracy isn’t about the rights of the majority. It isn’t about elections where the most votes win. It is about the winners making a place for those with fewer votes. It is about the rights of the minority being protected in their less popular views. It is about allowing someone to burn the flag you love and by doing so making what that flag stands for even stronger. It is about allowing a “nut job” to say all sorts of negative things about your country and to understand that by affirming their right to say those things, your country is made stronger.

Citizenship and democracy aren’t bumper stickers and political spin—they are things thousands have died to preserve. That lesson must be passed on to our children. Free speech comes at a great price, but one that must be paid. And we can start by paying more attention to what we have been given.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.