Freedom of Speech for Who?
Our schools are not free. Our education system was not built to raise children who are critical thinkers. We were not meant to decolonize minds as teachers or liberate our students from society’s shackles. Teachers were supposed to teach children how to be productive members of society. They were not meant to have voices that challenged the status quo or to teach children to fight for justice. Our schools resemble prisons and, just like inmates who cannot challenge the authority figures they reside underneath, our students do not have the ability to speak out without consequence. Historically, public education was used as a form of oppression. In 1851, “...Massachusetts passes...its compulsory education law. The goal is to make sure that the children of poor immigrants get ‘civilized’ and learn obedience and restraint, so that they make good workers and don't contribute to social upheaval.”
The First Amendment is not unequivocally applied to all spaces in this country. We have the right to speak our minds unless we are teachers or students in public schools and someone decides that it is “disrupting education.” In Tinker vs. De Moines, several students were protesting against the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to school. The school suspended one student for refusing to take it off and then four other students for the same reason. On February 24, 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that the students should not have been suspended because it did not disrupt the educational process. But who gets to decide what is disruptive? Does it arbitrarily depend on the administrators of the school? Local court judges? Who the Supreme Court justices happen to be at that time?
Meanwhile, schools spend countless social studies classes teaching our students the value of their freedom of speech and fail to teach them their own limitations. Any student can tell you that they learned about the importance of their First Amendment as something quintessentially American, yet we cannot even see outside of this exaggeration to realize that it was not meant for them. As a society, we instinctively assume that this limitation is illegal when, in fact, it intentionally excludes our schools. The sad reality is that administrations are legally allowed to discipline civil disobedience. Yes - students who want to participate in the political process can easily be shut down and face consequences. Because it’s not convenient. Just like it’s not convenient in football, movies, books, award shows, or college campuses.
Classrooms need to reflect the kind of freedom we act like we have in the United States. We boast about our first amendment rights without holding schools accountable to reflect them. This requires us to take a closer look at what we mean when we say we are trying to create “good citizens.” Because by the standards of our schools right now what we are creating are complacent and silent citizens who don’t even have the freedom to think about changing the status quo, let alone actually changing it to create the kind of equity they deserve.