Government schools are where free speech goes to die

University of Oregon

The first time I ever heard the term “freedom of speech” was in a public school classroom. I’d be willing to bet that was true for a lot of us. Classes on the Constitution invariably spent a fair amount of time discussing the Bill of Rights. While the Second Amendment didn’t get as much attention, the First definitely did.

It seems ironic that I find two stories regarding schools and their inability to understand what free speech is on the same day, considering where I first learned the term.

To start with, let’s go to college. The University of Oregon, to be specific.

On June 9, 2014, the female student in question was visiting with friends in UO’s Carson Hall dormitory. According to the student, looking out of the dormitory window, she spotted a male and female student walking together (she did not know either of them) and shouted “I hit it first” at them in jest. The female of the couple responded with two profanities and the couple reported the student’s comment to the Resident Assistant of the dorm. The Resident Assistant located the student and insisted that she apologize to the couple for her remark. The student readily obliged.

That did not end the matter, however. On June 13, the student was shocked to receive a “Notice of Allegation” letter charging her with five separate conduct violations for her four-word joke. In addition to dubious allegations of violating the residence hall’s noise and guest policies, UO charged the student with “[h]arassment,” “disruption,” and “[d]isorderly conduct.” After being presented with these outrageous and unconstitutional charges, the student contacted FIRE.

FIRE wrote to UO President Michael Gottfredson on August 1, demanding that the charges against the student be dropped. FIRE also called on UO to revise its unconstitutional speech codes—in particular, the harassment policy under which it charged the student. That policy contains unconstitutionally broad and vague prohibitions on “[u]nreasonable insults,” “gestures,” and  “abusive words” that may cause “emotional distress” to others, subjecting UO students to punishment for any expression deemed subjectively distressing. FIRE’s letter explained that Oregon courts have struck down state harassment laws containing similar prohibitions.

First, “[u]nreasonable insults”? Perhaps UO would care to give some examples of reasonable insults?

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, is already on top of this one. Now, I’ll admit I don’t get the joke, and I suspect there’s more to the story than we know, but so what? There are no threats of violence or anything of the sort. It’s four words that manage to get the speaker five charges? How do you get 1.25 charges per word?

Colleges have recently come under fire (pardon the pun) for their inability to recognize that students and faculty enjoy First Amendment rights, even on campus. Case after case has been fought, yet the pace doesn’t seem to be falling off in the least.

Of course, not to be out done, a Maryland middle school seems to have taken it even further.

CAMBRIDGE, Md.- He’s a man with many names, and the books he has written have raised the concerns of the Dorchester County Board of Education and the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office.

Early last week the school board was alerted that one of its eighth grade language arts teachers at Mace’s Lane Middle School had several aliases.  Police said that under those names, he wrote two fictional books about the largest school shooting in the country’s history set in the future.  Now, Patrick McLaw is placed on leave.

Dr. K.S. Voltaer is better known by some in Dorchester County as Patrick McLaw, or even Patrick Beale.  Not only was he a teacher at Mace’s Lane Middle School in Cambridge, but according to Dorchester Sheriff James Phillips, McLaw is also the author of two books: “The Insurrectionist” and its sequel, “Lillith’s Heir.”

Those books are what caught the attention of police and school board officials in Dorchester County.  “The Insurrectionist” is about two school shootings set in the future, the largest in the country’s history.

So, this “language arts” (which most of us took as “English”) teacher wrote a couple of books that contain subject matter that the school finds objectionable? First, both are apparently works of fiction. Second, there doesn’t seem to be any other reason to suspect the teacher of any wrongdoing or the desire to commit any wrongdoing. Oh, but that doesn’t matter.

Phillips said McLaw was taken in for an emergency medical evaluation. The sheriff would not disclose where McLaw is now, but he did say that he is not on the Eastern Shore. The same day that McLaw was taken in for an evaluation, police swept Mace’s Lane Middle School for bombs and guns, coming up empty.

Dorchester County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Henry Wagner said the Dorchester County Board of Education has taken its own action.

“[T]aken in for an emergency medical evaluation”? Really?

So, to be perfectly clear, they took a man who wrote two works of fiction into custody and forced him to undergo psychological evaluation based on nothing except those works of fiction?

Now, I’ll grant that teachers sign contracts with their school systems, and it’s possible the books were in violation of that contract. In such a case, termination may well be warranted within the rules of the contract. Had it stopped there, I doubt I’d have gotten worked up about it. But that’s not where it ends. No, instead they deprived a man of his freedom, at least for a short time, and are treating him like a dangerous criminal because he wrote a couple of books.

Folks, the idea of freedom to write what we want to write is essential to liberty. No, he wasn’t writing some political treatise that would protect all that we hold holy as Americans, but so what? The rule isn’t there to just protect some works, it’s there to protect them all. That includes novels written by a teacher, no matter how much bad taste is involved.

I wonder how the school would have reacted if he’d have written erotica instead?


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