A lesson on censorship and civil disobedience for Jeffco students, teachers and observers

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Regardless of the fact that political wrangling between the Jefferson County, Colorado (Jeffco) teachers’ union and the conservative-majority school board set off recent conflicts in the district, the focus of the student walkouts in numerous Jeffco schools is a board proposal to appoint a committee to review (among other things) the Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) course.

As Independence Institute’s Ross Izard notes, the original proposal, by board member Julie Williams, was not adopted, and John Newkirk, another of the conservative board members, proposed to strike Williams’s “politically inflammatory language” (Izard’s words) regarding such things as “respect for authority” and “civil disorder.” Nevertheless, the mere fact that Williams proposed a committee to review curricula sparked outrage and the resulting protests.

The student walkouts have been described, not only by the students themselves but by numerous media outlets and other observers, as “civil disobedience” in response to the board’s attempts to “censor” history. But whether the walkouts constitute civil disobedience is debatable; they almost certainly do not. And, whatever the problems of Williams’s proposal, it certainly was not an effort to “censor” history—and describing it as such obfuscates the meaning of the term and distracts from the very real dangers of censorship.

Given that Jeffco students are mainly protesting a proposed review of a history course, it seems appropriate that they learn the meaning of civil disobedience and of censorship. Obviously, some of their teachers, as well as various activists and journalists, could use a refresher course on these matters as well. We’ll begin with civil disobedience.

Civil Disobedience

icon_blog_noteCivil disobedience is such an important part of American history—and of history elsewhere—that students should understand fully what it means and be able to identify important examples of it.

Civil disobedience, as Merriam-Webster has it, means the “refusal to obey governmental demands or commands.” Although in its broadest sense civil disobedience can refer to any intentional violation of the law or other government mandate that the actors regard as wrong—for example, the actions of the Boston Tea Party and Northerners’ refusals to obey the fugitive slave laws—more narrowly civil disobedience refers to the public and advertised violation of a law or government mandate, with the expectation that government will sanction the disobedient.

Most people can cite at least some of the usual examples. Rosa Parks and other activists intentionally violated segregation laws, knowing they’d likely be sanctioned, in order to draw attention to the injustice of those laws. Henry David Thoreau once was jailed for refusing to pay a poll tax. Susan B. Anthony voted illegally. Elsewhere, Gandhi famously led a march to protest the British government’s monopoly on salt by taking salt from the sea. Modern examples of civil disobedience include the current marches in Hong Kong and the protests of Pussy Riot against Russian oppression.

To me civil disobedience is a sacred thing, and therefore I do not throw the term around lightly. I personally have never practiced an act of public civil disobedience. I have personally seen only one such act in my lifetime, when I witnessed a man intentionally carry a handgun on his hip openly, in violation of Denver law—upon which he was immediately arrested.

That brings us to the question of whether the Jeffco students are practicing civil disobedience by walking out of class. Certainly many of the students think that they are, and many observers claim that they are. Consider a few examples. Historian Joseph Palermo claims at Huffington Post that “these young people hit the streets in the grand tradition of civil disobedience in America.” A headline at TPM claims, “Students Use Civil Disobedience To Protest Removing It From History Curriculum.” And Jack Healy claims at the New York Times that “hundreds of students, teachers and parents gave the board their own lesson in civil disobedience.” (Here we will consider only the claim regarding the students; arguably teachers who staged “sick outs” did so unlawfully.)

Curiously, so far as I have noticed, no one has bothered to explain what law or government mandate the students have allegedly broken that would make their actions an example of civil disobedience. If the students have not broken any law or government mandate, then they have not practiced civil disobedience. They have protested, to be sure, but a lawful protest is not civil disobedience.

The only law that I can point to that the students might have violated is the compulsory attendance law. But I do not think students have actually violated that law by walking out of class to protest the school board.

Colorado’s compulsory attendance law is contained in statute 22-33-104. It states (among other things) that “every child who has attained the age of six years on or before August 1 of each year and is under the age of seventeen years . . . shall attend public school for at least the following number of hours during each school year,” which is 1,056 for “a secondary school pupil.” (Exceptions are made for students who attend private schools or home schools.) The statutes explicitly grant authority to school boards to implement the law: “The board of education shall adopt a written policy setting forth the district’s attendance requirements.” So what do Jeffco’s policies say?

You can find the relevant document by searching for “attendance” within the Jefferson County school board documents online, and locating the document: “Policy Item: JH Student Absences and Excuses.” This document states that an absence is excused if “approved by the school administration on a prearranged basis.” Although students arguably violated the provision because school administrators did not formally authorize the walkouts, school administrators did obviously informally authorize them—many administrators and teachers practically rolled out the red carpet for students as they walked out the door.

District administrators certainly did not see the walkouts as illegal; superintendent Dan McMinimee said, “I respect the right of our students to express their opinions in a peaceful manner. I do, however, prefer that our students stay in class.” If government recognizes your right to do something, then it is not civil disobedience to do that thing—regardless of what some bureaucrat may personally “prefer.”

Of course, none of this is to diminish the spirit and enthusiasm of the students participating in the walkouts. Just because an action isn’t civil disobedience, doesn’t mean it’s not awesome or praiseworthy.

At the same time, people who practice civil disobedience, by the nature of the act, risk and likely suffer very real legal repercussions, such as getting arrested and thrown in jail. So let’s not make light of what civil disobedience looks like, or how dangerous it often is for the people who practice it.

Now, when a student ditches class to stand outside of a school with a sign reading, “I’m not going to class in protest of the unjust compulsory attendance laws,” then we’ll have something to talk about in terms of civil disobedience. (Needless to say, such a student would not earn the praise and support of teachers’ unions and left-leaning journalists across the nation.)

Let us next turn to the meaning of censorship.

Censorship

Media reports about the walkouts are filled with accusations that Williams’s proposal calls for or amounts to the “censorship” of history. The College Board itself, the private, nonprofit corporation that created APUSH, declares, “The College Board’s Advanced Placement Program® supports the actions taken by students in Jefferson County, Colorado to protest a school board member’s request to censor aspects of the AP U.S. History course.” And an October 1 media release by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado also explicitly refers to Williams’s proposal as an attempt at “censorship.”

But, regardless of the problems with Williams’s proposal, it does not constitute or call for censorship. It arguably calls for or likely would lead to inappropriate board meddling in the teaching of history, but that is not the same thing as censorship—and anyone who claims it is simply does not know (or is intentionally distorting) what censorship means. Both the College Board and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado—among many others—are misusing the term censorship, implying that it means something that it does not mean.

Censorship is any government restriction on private speech (broadly understood to encompass all forms of communication), including, within certain limits, private speech on or using government property. So, for example, if government forbids you to say or write something, or to publish a book, that is censorship. If government forbids you to raise funds to produce a political documentary—as the McCain-Feingold censorship law did in some contexts before the Supreme Court substantially overturned it—that is censorship. If government limits the political signs you may place in your yard—as the city of Pueblo currently does—that is censorship. If government imprisons or executes you for blasphemy, as MIddle Eastern Islamic regimes regularly do, that is censorship. If government unreasonably stops you from protesting on “public” (i.e., government-owned) property, that is censorship (although the term “unreasonably” becomes a tricky one to define in that context).

Censorship does not pertain to terms of employment, whether offered by a private company or a government entity.

For example, government school teachers may not deliver racist rants to their classrooms without facing the possibility (and hopefully the reality) of termination of their employment. If a Jeffco teacher attempted to get his students to join a new local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan by passionately advocating the group in class, and the school where he worked fired him on the grounds that his classroom speech was intolerable, neither the College Board, nor the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, nor anyone else, would accuse the school of censoring the teacher.

Nor does censorship refer to the selectivity of course materials in a classroom, whether private or government.

With respect to curricula in the classroom, those are necessarily selective. If a teacher spends a class period covering certain materials, ideas, and sources, the teacher necessarily cannot spend that same period covering other materials, ideas, and sources. For example, I believe Jeffco history teachers would do well to discuss in the classroom the works of Amity Shlaes on the Great Depression. If a history teacher does not use that source, is the teacher thereby “censoring” history? Obviously not. The teacher is simply selecting other sources.

Likewise, the fact that the College Board’s “AP Development Committees define the scope and expectations of the [history] course”—which necessarily means that those committees narrow the scope of the course—does not mean that the College Board is “censoring” history by excluding whatever falls outside of the “defined scope” of its course.

So why is it not “censorship” when the College Board decides the “scope” of a history course, but it is “censorship” when the school board seeks to do so? The answer is that it’s not censorship in either case.

When a school board helps select educational materials for the government schools it supervises, that is by its nature not “censorship.” Someone at some level has got to decide which materials are used in a class—and, by implication, which materials are not used. If “censorship” meant any omission of any material, idea, or source in a government classroom, than every single such classroom would be practicing “censorship” every single day with respect to nearly every material or source ever published.

That said, one may reasonably criticize how government schools select their materials, without calling the process censorship. Julie Williams’s original proposal, with its vague language about “objectionable materials,” about the promotion of “citizenship” and “respect for authority,” and about the discouragement of “civil disorder” (among other things), was badly conceived and horribly drafted. For details, see my own critique of Williams’s proposal or the October 1 letter from the National Coalition Against Censorship to the school board. (Although the issue at hand is not censorship, the letter makes some valid points.)

On the other hand, Williams was seeking to make the teaching of history more inclusive, not less inclusive, at least in some respects. She proposed, “Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.” Notably, she did not say that instructional materials should not present the negative aspects of history—despite the smears of some of her critics.

Although the exclusion of certain materials in a government classroom does not constitute censorship, inclusion of other materials does constitute a violation of people’s rights to speak freely. How so?

As the ACLU recognizes in other contexts, “The Supreme Court has ruled that just as the First Amendment protects an individual’s right to say what he or she wants, it also protects his or her right not to say something.”

A person has just as much moral right not to speak, and not to support speech of which he disapproves, as he does to speak, and to support speech of which he approves. For example, I have the right to publicly advocate atheism and to help finance a book advocating atheism, and I also have the right not to do those things. If government forced me to promote atheism, that would be a violation of my right to freedom of speech, just as surely as if government forced me not to promote atheism.

What does that imply with respect to the curricula of government schools? When government forcibly takes someone’s money—as it does with school taxes—to finance the propagation of ideas or materials of which the taxpayer disapproves, that is a violation of the taxpayer’s freedom of speech. Of course, to my knowledge, neither the College Board, nor the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, nor the National Coalition Against Censorship, nor any of the teachers or students in Jefferson County’s “public” schools, nor any of their cheerleaders in the media, have done anything whatsoever to protest such violations of the freedom of speech.

If nothing else, Jeffco students should learn what civil disobedience is, what censorship is, and what those things are not. Unless Americans fully and accurately understand those concepts, they cannot expect to practice civil disobedience, or to fight censorship, when it matters most.

Colorado blogger and author Ari Armstrong writes at AriArmstrong.com

 

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