Today, schools across the country are teaching students what to think -- whether about the environment, the war or social policy. A High School International Affairs Program Crosses the Line to Propagandizing

"Learn today . . . Lead tomorrow". That is the public relations campaign motto adopted this year by the Michigan School Public Relations Association, the Michigan Department of Education and the Michigan Education Association. A good motto in principle, but a terrible one in practice if the public school students are learning lessons that undermine American values and leadership.

A perfect example comes from the Farmington, Michigan, Public Schools. At a school board meeting this month, the board approved (4-3) a curriculum change that eliminates the requirement for 12th grade American government, replacing it with an International Affairs program that includes on its menu of courses a class on terrorism, with the strong implication that the U.S. is the terrorist.

Yes, you read that right, "terrorism." With a majority of newly graduated young adults leaving high school without the democratic principles that encourage them to vote, it is astounding that this school district would eliminate the teaching of American government, civics and economics to 12th graders, in favor of courses that "explore fundamental concepts of culture, international relations, and diplomacy," albeit with an anti-American bias regarding current events that is palpable.

Approved course materials for the program will "explore" such ideas as: America's "war against terrorism is a fraud;" "[t]he U.S. has turned into a fascist state;" the war against terrorism is "Bush's Jihad;" the Taliban are victims of American Terrorism." Perhaps most astoundingly, one article encourages teachers to "clarify with students what precisely we mean by terrorism. And then let's encourage students to apply this definition to U.S. conduct in the world."

While we firmly believe that schools are the place to discuss and debate important world events that directly affect all our children's lives and futures, the job of the teacher is to present students with relevant, academically sound information and encourage them to intelligently evaluate conflicting ideas and not to spin this information (whether pro-war or anti-war) or politicize it. At one time, the educator's creed was: "We are here to teach you how to think, not what to think." Today, schools across the country are teaching students what to think -- whether about the environment, the war or social policy.

Although many, if not most, Americans wholeheartedly disagree with the clearly extremist sentiments contained in the chosen articles, we appreciate the authors' constitutional right to free speech. What this school board needs to learn, however, is that that same constitutional protection does not give the school district the right to get into politics.

The First Amendment to the Constitution precludes the government from restricting speech. The United States Supreme Court has construed First Amendment principles to apply to public schools in general, as well as to public school teachers and students.

Yet, what the Farmington Public School Board fails to recognize is that inasmuch as teachers and students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door, it is debatable whether the public school district (a government entity) itself possesses this First Amendment right. Likewise, it remains an unresolved question whether government speech is immune from First Amendment scrutiny. Undoubtedly, it is an oxymoron to say that the government can or cannot restrict its own speech.

If, in the natural course of class study, a teacher or student offers his or her opinion of a current event, the Supreme Court has stated that the school board may not silence that viewpoint. In such instances, no speech is initiated or generated by the government, but rather exists solely due to the impetus and decision of private parties.

It is entirely a different matter, however, if the school board is the speaker, as it is when it selects the curriculum and course materials. When a school district chooses to speak, such as through its curriculum offerings, it does so as a governmental body, with the government as the speaker. The government's right to engage in advocacy is certainly questionable under current Supreme Court jurisprudence. It is troubling when an inferior government body uses inflammatory and unbalanced texts to indoctrinate against policies of superior government bodies.

Case law supports the notion that the government through the school district may use tax money to speak in connection with the performance of its legitimate function of operating a school. The recognized test is to allow the government speech that is "germane" to some governmental conduct. In this situation, it means that the school district's right to speak on its own property and through its employees is restricted to matters relating to its primary pedagogical function.

The parents of Farmington students are right, and have every right, to question whether the new course as outlined is germane to valid government conduct. Just as it would be unconstitutional for the Farmington School Board to approve a curriculum that teaches "why voting for the [D]emocratic party is a good thing," it is equally unconstitutional for the school board to approve one that teaches students that the "U.S. government is ill-placed to lecture the world about terrorism."

Justice Scalia indirectly recognized this First Amendment limitation when he stated in a concurring opinion in NEA v. Finley that "it would be unconstitutional for the government to give money to an organization devoted to the promotion of candidates nominated by the Republican Party" and that "it would be just as unconstitutional for the government itself to promote candidates nominated by the Republican Party."

While courts have recognized that school boards have the authority to take numerous actions based upon prevailing points of view, such authority does not extend to manipulating public opinion. Rather, as recognized in the seminal Supreme Court case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, "[a]uthority here is to be controlled by public opinion, not public opinion by authority."

Tilting the playing field of ideas, whether through compelled subtraction or compelled addition of particular viewpoints, necessarily clashes with the First Amendment. Even absent complete suppression of particular views, the First Amendment is offended by efforts to skew public debate. Twenty five years ago, in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, the Supreme Court found that where speech restriction "suggests an attempt to give one side of a debatable public question an advantage in expressing its views to the people, the First Amendment is plainly offended."

It is surely not the business of the Farmington Public School Board to shape students' views in such a transparently provocative manner.

The Farmington Public School Board must be educated on its role and limitations as a government body. School board members should revisit their decision to replace the 12th grade American government requirement with a biased International Studies program. If they refuse, perhaps the first lesson in democracy on the plate for students this fall should be witnessing a recall campaign against those school board members who have allowed personal political sentiments to supplant their educational responsibilities.

June 26, 2003
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