By Mike Farrell
Special to The Courier-Journal
The Supreme Court of the United States last month taught high school students a civics lesson.
The title was "The First Amendment guarantees less freedom for students than for adults."
...The First Amendment says nothing about maturity and doesn't mandate responsibility as a condition for enjoying freedom. Still, few who have taught or raised children want to see the public schools turned into a free speech zone where banners glorify drug use or student newspapers belittle teachers or fellow students.
Because this decision concerned speech that involved drug messages, it may do little damage to student speech. It may do greater damage to democracy.
A great deal is written, usually with great angst, about the lack of interest young people have in civics, public issues, voting and the news.
The Civic Literacy Initiative of Kentucky, led by Chief Justice Joseph Lambert and Secretary of State Trey Grayson, last year issued strong recommendations intended to re-engage students in our public life.
One way to do that is to encourage students to exercise their rights of free expression. The schools and the courts should consider whether this decision and other curbs on students' First Amendment rights are related to their lack of interest in public affairs. The percentage of young adults who vote in national elections is low.
A Kentuckian, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, wrote in 1927 "the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people" and "public discussion is a political duty." A generation that doesn't vote or keep up with national news is the foundation for an inert people.
The lesson students are taught by their schools and the Supreme Court is that they may be punished if their opinions are unpopular, even meaningless and silly. That can suggest to them that it is better not to form an opinion or at least not to express one...
... The First Amendment was never designed to protect popular opinion. It was designed to protect controversial speech. The First Amendment is not easy; it demands we let people speak and write even when we consider their ideas odious or silly, even if they are students. We should ask ourselves what we are teaching the leaders of tomorrow about freedom.