Statements to the School Board in support of freedom of expression

Public comment regarding the proposed policy to limit student expression in theatrical presentations, March 8, 2005 Loudoun County School Board meeting

Judy Hines
The Rev. R. Don Prange
Vincent Black
Suzanne DeSaix
David Weintraub
Jonathan Weintraub
Mil Bickings
Jeri McGiverin
Michelle Gris&#233
Janell Kinzie

Judy Hines

I spent the last 25 years of my career, which culminated in my position as education director at the Newseum, working to help students understand how precious the First Amendment is to them and to our democracy. It protects some of the most vital freedoms that were sought by the people who first came to this country.

The Knight Foundation recently surveyed 112,000 high school students, 8,000 teachers and 500 administrators, representing 544 school districts about their views regarding the First Amendment. Nearly 3/4 of the students either didn’t know how they felt about the First Amendment or said they took it for granted.

If they didn’t take it for granted, they would know that:

1. The First Amendment gives them the right to pray in school.
2. The First Amendment ensures that they can identify statements that are false, and read and research enough to discover those they believe to be true.
3. It is the First Amendment that will allow them to act as knowledgable, responsible citizens and voters in the future.

President Bush said in his inaugural address that the U.S. priority is exporting freedom around the world. As Michael Maidenberg of the Knight Foundation put it — better than I could — we should start in our own classrooms and make sure that students understand the freedoms afforded to them and are willing to defend them.

The Rev. R. Don Prange, pastor of St. James United Church of Christ, an Open and Affirming Congregation

I want to begin my remarks by sharing a story out of African folklore: A little boy in an African village customarily came home from school with excitement about his learnings from the day. Then one day he came home with a look of puzzlement on his face. Noticing this puzzled look, his father asked what it was all about. The little boy said: “Father, there’s something I don’t understand. In school the teacher often tells us stories about this lion who is called ‘the king of the jungle.’ But this ferocious and strong beast always seems to get killed by the hunters in the story. I don’t understand it. If the lion is so strong, how is it that the hunters always kill the lion.?” The father responded: “Well son, until lions learn how to write books, that’s the way the story will always end.”

I share this story because it illustrates a number of things. First of all it lifts up an important educational principle about story telling. Imaginative and creative stories often teach more than the recitation of simple facts, even when they are true. But secondly, it reminds us that when stories are being told they often represent only one perspective. In terms of United States history alone, this is true of the stories of so-called minorities, especially Native Americans indigenous to this land, along with African Americans. Since the liberating movements of the 1950’s and 60’s, we have made important strides to be more inclusive in telling the story of the United States, and in observing this principle that is so vital to an honest and truthful educational experience, we may be confronted by facts that challenge what we have always been taught.

There is, of course, the importance of theater to education, and you may recall the important lines from South Pacific . . “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear . . You’ve got to be taught to be afraid . . You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late/Before you are six or seven or eight/To hate all the people your relatives hate/You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

When I was in elementary school in Little Rock, Arkansas, I was taught certain things about African Americans in the minstrel shows that were actually part of the curriculum. And said to say, I wasn’t being taught differently about any of these things at home. And I wasn’t being taught anything differently when a minstrel show by a local Kiwanis Club was an extra-curricular event that was allowed to happen in the auditorium of the Christian college I was attending in Winfield, Kansas.

By some amazing grace experiences in life I have been taught and educated with a lot more care for persons and ideas of whom and which I had been taught to be afraid, and I have come to some very new and different perspectives in life. So as a pastor in a Christian tradition known as the United Church of Christ that operates with an open and affirming perspective on a variety of issues and concerns, a perspective that comes from a Christian teacher named John who had obviously been taught by a man named Jesus that fear is driven out by perfect love (cf 1 John 4:18, Jerusalem Bible), I appeal to those of you who share the Christian tradition to apply that principle in making decisions about what and how young people are being taught in the Loudoun County school system. Perfect love is not afraid of new and different stories!

Vincent Black

Good Evening! I’m Vince Black, a concerned single parent with a daughter at Stone Bridge High School.

5 years ago, I relocated our family to Northern Virginia for a job opportunity. We moved into Loudoun County, not only because of proximity to my new job, but because I had heard that the schools in Loudoun County were top notch!

I haven’t been disappointed! The education that my son and daughter have received at Stonebridge High School has been top notch! I believe this is due to the superb leadership and wisdom of the Loudoun County school board members, and the faculty and staff of all of our schools.

What brings me here this evening was the series of events leading to this hearing – the production of a series of one-act plays at Stonebridge High School in early February – The Postcards from Paradise and it’s one-act play called “Offsides.” Offsides highlighted the predicament of a high school student who grapples with the realization that he may be gay.

This is the issue as I understand it: Is it ever appropriate to discuss sexual orientation in our schools?

I’m speaking before you this evening, because I believe I have a unique perspective on this situation. First of all, my daughter Angie is the stage manager for Stone Bridge HS and was on hand, managing the stage lighting and sound systems for Offsides. Secondly, my life experiences mirror the content of Offsides, in that in my younger years, I struggled to accept my sexual orientation. Yes, I’m gay.

Let me start off by stating that I strongly believe it is every parent’s right and responsibility to teach their values to their children. Some parents choose to instill conservative, religious beliefs while other parents have belief systems that are more secular.

Regardless, all of these approaches play an important role in how the social fabric of our country evolves.

In our household, I’ve taught my son and daughter to respect other people’s beliefs, values, and creeds, even if they personally disagreed with the other person’s viewpoints. I also taught my children not to judge. Both of my children know I’m gay. Neither child is gay, but they understand who I am and respect me for it.

Conflict is bound to occur when our children, coming from every walk of life, from every religion, from every culture, get thrown together into that great mixing bowl, called the school system.

I don’t envy the task before you, trying to figure out how much or how little should be discussed in our schools.

Now that the issue of sexual orientation has been thrust into open, public debate, it’s important for the School Board to deal with this question in a fair and equitable manner. Some people feel that this topic should be prohibited in our schools whereas others insist it should be discussed openly. I suggest that the School Board consider striking a balance between these opposing viewpoints.

In the future, should the school system dictate what students read, think or portray, in High School Drama productions or art displays?

For that answer, let me quote from email, my daughter sent to Delegate Dick Black on February 9th: “As a high school senior, an upcoming adult, I believe we are at an age where we can handle sensitive issues such as sexuality. And to dictate what we, the students, can read, hear, watch, write, or say is ridiculous.”

As I stated earlier, my daughter is not gay. She is a responsible, mature individual, who will, in less than 6 months, be old enough to vote.

I suggest that sexual orientation should be included in sexual education classes – a fact-based, G-rated discussion on heterosexuality and homosexuality. I don’t think technical depictions of any intimate act, whether heterosexual or homosexual is acceptable. As with other controversial curricula, parents should be given the choice of “opting out”.

Secondly, sexual orientation invariably comes up for discussion by our students. An atmosphere of trust, not derision, needs to be fostered in our high schools. Teachers, when confronted with a situation dealing with sexual orientation must be able to react in a calm, non-threatening, manner. Ridicule, scorn, or ignoring the situation altogether, does not solve the problem and should not be tolerated. Teachers should be able to refer students who are self-questioning, to specially trained counselors within the school system.

One of the goals of parents and that of our school system, is to provide the knowledge and guidance necessary so that our children grow into mature adults, to make informed decisions later in life, and to foster tolerance of everyone around them.

Thank you for listening to me.

I’m speaking as a concerned parent and citizen. I ask you, ‘what type of Principal would support a student’s play highlighting homosexuality?’, I say a brave and wise one – a true educator. I am appalled at the movement in this county to censor our student’s freedom of expression. The attempt to restrict opposing points of view is not only unconstitutional, it is unethical. It is unethical to use one’s power to silence opposing viewpoints, to attempt to impose one’s own personal discomfort on others. It is unethical to undermine the intellectual development of our youth – for ignorance and suppression is the stuff of dictatorships, such as Iraq under Saddam Hussein. We should be encouraging our young people to speak up, to analyze and debate issues in our society. We should not be attempting to silence them. If anything, we should be doing more in our school system to provide forums for students to discuss, analyze, and debate current events and social issues; to develop their intellectual and philosophical capabilities and foster tolerance of differing viewpoints.

I hope that reason will prevail here in this debate – a true universal reason as symbolized by our country’s Constitution. For in a free state, it is the right of all people to bear words.

David Weintraub, President, Equality Loudoun

Good evening. I’m David Weintraub, I am the president of Equality Loudoun, and I am also a parent. I moved to Loudoun County in part because of the excellent reputation of the public schools.

When I sent my son to school, I expected that he would be exposed to a variety of ideas, and learn the critical thinking skills that would allow him to evaluate the merit of those ideas. I never expected that he would only be exposed to ideas that I agree with.

That does not seem to be the case for everyone.

There are some in our community who are using the student production “Offsides” as an excuse for demanding the restriction of ideas and topics that they don’t like. They often point out that the play expressed a point of view, as if that were a problem. Of course the “Offsides” playwright had a point of view. As she herself said right here in this room, “As an avid artist, I had something to say and I said it.”

What some do not understand or want to accept is that it is her right to do so.

The law is very clear on this: Students have the right to self expression. That right has been upheld over and over and over again, since 1969 when a student’s right to express her opposition to the war in Vietnam was affirmed. That opinion established that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

These are young adults, with minds and opinions of their own. And might I point out to all of you that they are young adults who will be voting soon.

Some on this board have made the statement that, simply because an idea arouses protest and controversy, allowing expression of that idea is, or should be, by definition, a violation of policy.

That in fact is the textbook definition of something called the “heckler’s veto,” and it is a legally impermissible basis for the prohibition of topics, viewpoints or ideas.

You cannot prohibit the expression of a point of view because that point of view makes somebody else in the community upset. If this board, or the public, believes that such action is permissible, then the policy does indeed need clarification. It must be made absolutely clear that students have a right to freedom of expression that cannot be infringed upon via the heckler’s veto.

Any policy that can be interpreted to mean that parents or others can demand the censorship of certain materials, topics, or ideas on the basis of their capacity to arouse protest or controversy, will be overturned. I recommend becoming familiar with the 1984 Equal Access Act and the history of its application.

What is being proposed by some will inevitably result in costly lawsuits. I urge you to study the outcome in other jurisdictions that have gone down this road – and consider the taxpayers who will have to foot the bill for any poorly informed actions that you take under pressure of a political agenda.

Since I seem to have some time left, I’d like to share with you an interesting exchange I had with one of the other speakers last month, in which he repeated something he had said during his commentary. He framed the conflict between the two sides on this issue as his right to his religious beliefs versus my right to exist.

Let me preface this by saying that I don’t see it that way – I see no fundamental contradiction between his right to his beliefs and my right to exist. He has every right to his belief, apparently, that I shouldn’t exist, and I have no interest in taking that from him.

I thought at the time that this was either a remarkably honest admission of his intentions toward me, or that he didn’t realize what it was he was saying. You have to ask, though, hypothetically, if it did come down to a contest between those two things – his right to a belief, versus my right to exist – which one of those things do you think would be morally defensible?

Jonathan Weintraub

Thank you for the opportunity to speak. I’m speaking to the “Offsides” play generated action in the Policy and Legislative Committee. Please be very careful here. Any extracurricular oversight above and beyond the current policy is untenable. A restrictive change would open the door to viewpoint censorship. It would violate the law. A policy perceived as authoritarian disregard for student initiative and academic freedom would not be well received by the students and the community at large.

I’m addressing you as the proud parent of a Loudoun Valley High school graduate. I’m addressing you as a family man who agrees with sentiments expressed by this board that the family is the fundamental cohesive unit of this society. I’m addressing you as a Jew by birth, and a Christian by faith who attends church every Sunday. I’m addressing you as a citizen concerned about the decadence, depravity and moral decay I see all around me in America. I’m addressing you as a gay man who has been happily married to David Weintraub for 22 years. That last detail about my life should be inconsequential in the sense that this board must show my family the same respect it shows any other family in this county.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that I get to police the belief systems of members of this Board. Board members have every right as individuals to believe that families like mine, where the student has two daddies or two mommies, are “prurient topics”. You are free to believe that some students belong to parents who are “perverts”, “immoral”, “promiscuous”, “disease ridden”, whatever. Believe these lies all you want on your own time, but when you walk into this building to perform your duties as public servants, you can just check those beliefs at the door. This is the real world and it’s full of real people with real needs. Your job is to respect and serve all the real families in the county. I don’t care if you personally dislike some families, or if your over-active imaginations find our “life-style” (which by the way is complete fiction) objectionable. Check those prejudices at the door. They will interfere with your ability to do your job. As educators you must open your minds to continually learn from all members of the community you serve.

Members of this School Board must serve all families in the school system and ensure that all family members are protected from name calling, abuse and bullying. You have great allies in the students and the school staff. Their boots are on the school ground every day, and they know if they see a problem. The student artists and creative people are your most sensitive barometers. If they raise an alarm, your response should be “how can I help fix it”, not “SHUT UP”. Listen to them.

Mil Bickings

Thank you for allowing me to speak tonight, I appreciate your time. My name is Mil Bickings, and I have lived in Leesburg for seven years. My son graduated from Loudoun County High School, and my daughter is a senior there this year.

I stand before you tonight because I deeply care about the future of our schools and about the importance of education and knowledge to a thriving democracy. We have a national, global and moral obligation to teach our children and young adults to behave responsibly, to understand the obligations that come with the freedoms of our great country, and to make informed choices based on that understanding. The very words written in the constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights ensure that our vital freedoms are protected.

Remember the words “Liberty and Justice for All.” Remember the words “Freedom of Speech.” Remember, these are the very foundations of our great country, and our task as parents, citizens and Americans is to build on that foundation rather than chip away at it, rather than trample our legacy of civil rights and equality under the law.

So what is the issue here? Is our focus really education? If so, then let’s talk about increasing funds for our schools. Let’s talk about increasing salaries for our teachers, and for all those who work at the schools. Let’s discuss making conflict resolution a required class where students learn to address differences – otherness – without resorting to violence, bullying and name-calling. If our focus is educating young minds, let us as parents, leaders and concerned citizens, lead the way to a more certain democracy.

We live in tumultuous times, and we live in uncertain times, and we must find ways to avoid that uncertainty by teaching our children well. We must encourage and respect differences and work side by side, not in spite of those differences, but because, in this country, we celebrate difference.

Let us vow to defend our basic rights and promote tolerance so that we will not divide our children, who we hope will become compassionate, thoughtful citizens of our community and the world. Let us show them that we can come together on their behalf, and on behalf of those that have been labeled “other,” in the name of democracy, with the belief in and commitment to the same Constitution that has been cited and imitated through the world as one of the greatest documents of all nations.

Let us show our children greatness rather than narrowness. Let us teach them to reach high rather than stoop lower. Let us teach them to be free. Thank you very much.

Jeri McGiverin, Public Relations Director, Mainstream Loudoun

Was “Offsides” appropriate fare for high school students? As you consider writing a policy to limit student expression and controversial topics in our schools, simply because of the complaints of a vocal, politically-motivated minority, please keep in mind that the issue is not what you or anyone else thinks about homosexuality. The only issues you need to consider are directly related to the following standard literary criteria:

First, was the content age-appropriate? Yes. Students are aware that homosexuality exists and that some of their classmates are gay or lesbian. This is not a shocking, new concept for them. After all, the play was conceived, written, and directed by students.

Second, was the material presented in an appropriate manner? Yes. Other than an implied kiss, the play was mostly serious, sincere and relevant dialogue. Nothing was gratuitous.

Third, did the play have redeeming value? Yes. This very school board is groping with how to control bullying in our schools. Gay students are frequently bullied or treated with contempt, and this play opens a discussion about treating everyone with respect, whether you agree with the person or not.

Last, does the play have universality – the ability to appeal to audiences over time and location? Yes, it does. To illustrate, let’s compare “Offsides” to an example of standard fare for high school students . .

Take Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a story about adultery, an illegitimate child, and a minister who lacks the moral courage to do what’s right.

The universal themes in this story are similar to those in “Offsides”: the corrupting effect of hidden secrets; love and hate; fear and courage; guilt and forgiveness; human strength and weakness; and society’s role in determining the course of our lives. Hawthorne states his over arching theme at the end of the novel: “Be true. Be true. Be true.”

If we can acknowledge that our greatest works of literature often deal with controversial material that is used as a vehicle to explore deeper and broader questions, then why can’t we see this in Ms. Jess’s play? Let’s not ignore her forest of ideas because one of the trees happens to be homosexuality.

Finally, we ask you not to begin down the slippery slope of trying to define what should or should not be taught in our schools – especially in studies of literature. To censor by topic endangers the classics, which include murder, incest, infanticide, suicide, rape, and adultery. Numerous authors, such as Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein, were gay or lesbian. Do we prohibit their works too?

To censor based on language threatens many great works such as Of Mice and Men, Huckleberry Finn and novels about war, to name just a few. Finally, to censor based on a work’s message is viewpoint censorship, and exposure to different ideas is the overriding purpose of literature.

Each piece of literature must be judged as a whole using numerous criteria. How can you write a policy that covers all the exceptions and conditions? Instead, trust your staff of professionals to select material that will enrich, challenge, and open up new worlds for our youth.

Michelle Grisé

My name is Michelle Grisé. I am a Purcellville resident, with 2 children still attending Loudoun County schools.

I am directing my remarks this evening particularly to the Legislative and Policy Committee, Chairman Nuzzaco, Mr. Reed, Mr. Orheiser, Mr. DuPree, and Mr. Guzman. Dr. Hatrick, Chairman Andrews, members of the board.

A couple of weeks ago, we sat here and watched a film of a student produced play that was practiced and performed as an extracurricular activity. The play was about a young man’s struggle with his sexual identity and the way his peers dealt with the issue. It was an insightful glimpse into the reality that some of our students have had to face.

It was apparent from listening to the people who spoke after seeing the film that a few of them felt this was a subject that they would rather not discuss. And, not only did THEY not want to discuss it, but they did not want anyone else to discuss it. What else can this be called but CENSORSHIP??

There was nothing wrong with the play. In fact, it was remarkable the way that Audrey handled such a sensitive issue. We clearly have a difference of opinion, don’t we? Well, that’s okay. We can and should be diverse in who we are and what we think.

This country was founded on the principle of “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” where ALL men are created equal. Not SOME, but ALL. It was these words that granted African Americans their rights. It was these words that granted women their rights as well. We can no longer persecute those who we want to suppress. CENSORSHIP is WRONG!!

As elected public servants, you are expected to put aside your personal feelings as you discuss this topic and make a recommendation that is based on what is granted us by law. The first amendment is a precious one. It is a constitutionally granted right which sets us apart from countries whose human rights records we condemn. This is evidenced by the recent speech Mr. Bush gave in Russia stating that a country which suppressed free speech could not be a democracy. The government cannot control what we read and write anymore than they can control what we think.

I have to say that it amazes me that in the year 2005, more than 200 years after the signing of the Constitution, that we are in this room still fighting for our right to free speech.

You know what is right. NO CENSORSHIP!! Thank you.

Janell Kinzie

Good evening. My name is Janell Kinzie, and I did not practice in front of the mirror today, and I did not bring prepared remarks. I came at the last minute in response to a request from a friend, and in response to my concern about the issue that you are addressing here.

I am a parent. I have three teenagers – actually, one of them just turned twenty so I’m down to two teenagers – so it’s all downhill from here. My son graduated from Loudoun Valley in 2003. We moved here from Colorado in 2001, and we also chose to move to Loudoun County because of our research about the excellence of your school system, and we too have felt that the decision was a good one. We’ve been happy with our children’s education, but I have to tell you that I have some concern over the last few years about things that are happening – and obviously, everyone here has concerns about things that are happening.

My concern is that issues of security, issues of standards, as those standards are being dictated to us by the federal government, and now issues of morality, are narrowing the kind of education our children can get.

I think the best education is an open and free exchange of ideas. It can be a brawl sometimes – it obviously has to be under control – but the more ideas, the better. I expect my children to be exposed to ideas that I don’t like, and to discuss, and to learn to discuss and debate those ideas with people who disagree with them, in an atmosphere of safety and to learn to do it with civility. If we can’t learn to talk to each other, if we can’t learn to talk to people that we disagree with, it’s a big problem all over our country; we see it today in political campaigns, you see it everywhere.

We moved here from Colorado, as I said, specifically from Littleton, Colorado. Although my son was not attending Columbine, his best friend was, and we know parents who lost a daughter there. That tragedy had a huge impact on my life and on the lives of my children. Although I think we will never know what the source of that problem was, I think there was general agreement that the school had not been in touch with those two boys and a large number of other students who were disenfranchised. They were not aware of the extent of the bullying, they were not aware of the extent of the name-calling, and how out of the educational loop a lot of those kids were.

My biggest concern here is that if you start adopting policies and standards that restrict what kids can talk about, what teachers can talk about, what subjects can be dealt with in the school environment, that you’re going to lose some of these kids. You’re cutting off communication. They are going to tell you what’s on their minds. They’re going to tell their parents, maybe, sometimes – I try hard to keep those channels open – but I think the school has to try hard to keep those channels of communication open as well.

I’m also a person of faith. I’m the musician for our church, and I’m there almost every Sunday. I have strong moral values, I think, but I don’t want someone’s moral values, someone’s idea of what is moral and what is appropriate, imposed in the schools.

I’m also here as an attorney. I’m not practicing any longer, but I was licensed and practiced in Colorado for over twenty years, and I have to tell you I think as an attorney that you will be walking into a minefield. I think the constitutional right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression clearly applies to students and teachers, and it’s going to be a tough, narrow road. I don’t think it’s going to work. I think it’s just going to alienate students, and I hope you will consider just encouraging tolerance, encouraging diversity, and encouraging as much open communication between parents and students and teachers as you can possibly accomplish. I think any of these controversial subjects are opportunities for discussion and for further communication with our students, and I think that’s what’s really critical. I do have some information on case law . . (inaudible, handing out fact sheet to board members).

Comments are closed.