October 23, 2003
YSHS last Wednesday—
Last Wednesday morning Yellow Springs High School and McKinney Middle School students packed the school gym to talk about freedom of speech with two representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. Many students’ ears perked up when the state ACLU executive director Chris Link answered a question by defending the Ku Klux Klan’s right to free expression.
Using their own right to free speech, students challenged what was being said.
“What about flag burning? That’s a form of free speech,” one high schooler asked during the assembly.
“What’s the ACLU’s position on gay and lesbian marriage?” someone else asked. “Why are you here?” asked another.
The ACLU leaders were there because they had been invited by the Bill of Rights Committee of the Yellow Springs Human Relations Commission and the Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Yellow Springs, which asked them to talk about the Patriot Act, which the ACLU has been litigating against throughout the past two years.
“It took Gudgel three seconds to say yes,” Bill of Rights Committee member Don Wallis said.
“There is educational value in listening to differing opinions,” Yellow Springs High School principal John Gudgel said. “Our teachers do a great job here, but it’s nice to bring someone in from outside who is knowledgable about a cause and have the students dialogue with them.”
HRC members felt youth should be informed about the action the U.S. Government is taking, HRC member Joan Chappelle said.
“The Patriot Act is one of the most disturbing pieces of legislation we have ever passed in this country,” she said. “Since the founding fathers we have never had anything in writing that took away our rights like that, it’s so out of sync with democracy.”
The intent of the Patriot Act, passed one month after the 9/11/01 terrorist attack, was to expand the power of the authorities to identify and capture terrorists, Link said. But in effect, the bill strips citizens of many of their privacy rights and allows regular criminals, protesters and any group endangering human life to be prosecuted as terrorists without due process, she said.
In the process of gaining familiarity with free speech issues, students actively challenged their own assumptions and beliefs.
The ACLU does not defend the beliefs of particular groups and individuals, but it defends their right to have and express those beliefs, particularly when they are unpopular or in the minority, Link said through the microphone. For instance, the ACLU defended the right of a group of American Nazis to demonstrate in Skokie, Ill., in 1977.
The thought of defending politically incorrect speech was obviously new to some students, and many challenged what was being said.
“No matter how unpopular your speech is, everyone gets to talk in a democracy,” Link said. “We don’t shut people up but we answer them with good arguments and ideas.”
HRC members weren’t sure how the students would react to the ACLU or if they would be interested in the ideas, but they wanted to try.
Link, for one, was impressed. In the over 200 school presentations she has given in the past two years, she had never heard some of the questions that Yellow Springs students asked, she said. After the assembly, Link and Textoris visited Joyce McCurdy’s history and government classes to continue discussion with the students.
When Textoris asked one class if they had heard of the Patriot Act before that day, six students raised their hands. After asking for a review of the main tenets of both the Patriot Act and the Bill of Rights, students started in with a barrage of questions from the very specific to the ACLU’s position on a broad scope of issues.
Students wondered how long the Patriot Act would be in effect and what specifically the ACLU is doing to help those harmed by the bill. They also wanted to know the ACLU’s position on hate crimes, campaign finance reform, the electoral college system, and how involved the organization was in foreign affairs.
“What about socialized medicine and the people’s right to the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?” one student asked.
Teacher Kathy Burkland said the visit was beneficial because students got to take the time to delve more deeply into certain ideas and philosophies. Some students felt the same way.
“It was very interesting, and I learned a lot of things about the Patriot Act I didn’t understand before this,” student Sean Lake said.
“I didn’t like our government before, and now I don’t like it even more,” student Max Vondruska said.
“I’m very happy the ACLU exists, though I’m ashamed it’s necessary,” student Martin Borchers said. “It reflects on our society that we still have to have a group to protect free speech.”
Villagers apparently had an interest in the ACLU’s presentation as well. Over 80 residents participated in the community forum that night at the Bryan Center, and more came to the teach-in the following day for students, faculty and administration at Antioch College.
Link called the invigorated public interest one of the “updrafts” of the passage of the Patriot Act. The good thing about any misgoverning is the motivation it gives people to get involved and participate, she said.
The same can be said for the spread of ideas, that they get students and youth to think critically and analyze issues for themselves. Yellow Springs schools encourage that process, and they invite other organizations with differing viewpoints to talk with students and expose them to other ideas, Gudgel said.