Read Kids Are Americans Too Online

Authors: Bill O'Reilly

Kids Are Americans Too (7 page)

Negotiations work best when each side gets something and also gives something. Let's say that they work out a deal like this: The parents will offer to smoke outside if he will always use headphones when he plays his rap music. Or, they'll cut down on smoking if he turns off the computer games and exercises more. (He cares about his health, right? Aha!)

The exact terms of the agreement would depend upon the several personal factors involved. But common ground can be found in almost every family dispute over your rights as opposed to your parents' rights. (I know you'll e-mail me if you think I don't know what I'm talking about, and I'll listen. But most of the time, rights in the home can be thrashed out without involving the outside world. Think how lucky you are that you're not the daughter of Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. It seems to me that from the time she was six or so, they've made her life a living hell. They do NOT have the right to do that.)

The same advice should apply to your rights in the community, but the more people there are to get involved, the more complicated the situation is likely to become.

W
here do school rights end, and community rights begin, or vice versa? Sometimes, it's really not easy to say. But here's a clue…When an incident at school becomes the talk of the town, and when news reporters appear on the campus lawn with their lights, cameras, and mics, then the community is on the case.

Something like that happened in a posh little community northeast of Manhattan this past spring. In fact, you probably heard about it. After all, the kids involved gave their side of the story on national TV, including NBC's
Today
show.

PROSE AND A CON?

It was all about the “V-word.” Three sixteen-year-old girls at John Jay High School in Katonah-Lewisboro were told they would be suspended for a day because they used the word in front of an audience of fellow students. This group of honor students was giving a reading from a very famous play,
The Vagina Monologues,
at an evening event held by the school's literary magazine.

Were the girls deprived of their rights of free speech by this action?

Did the school have the right to suspend them because they crossed the line by using what some people think is an obscenity in public?

Before you decide, note that there are contradictory versions of the incident. (As usual.) The school charged that the girls had promised teachers before the event that they would not use the word. Doing so, in that case, seemed to officials like insubordination. It wasn't the word but the broken promise that got the girls suspended, school officials explained.

The girls alleged that they had never promised not to use the word.

In any case, the entire community didn't buy the school's explanation. While students set up a Web site protesting the suspensions (and sold supportive T-shirts), many parents in the well-educated, affluent community defended the use of the
word as a perfectly legitimate anatomical term. Others disagreed, arguing that the use of the word was inappropriate since very young students could have attended the event.

And so forth…

My point is that the issue stirred such strong emotions that the community became involved in what was otherwise a school incident: On the one side, many parents agreed with the girls that the school was practicing censorship; on the other, many parents agreed with the school's position.

This could have been quite a mess, but everyone calmed down long enough to keep it from getting to that point. First off, the school decided not to suspend the girls until the community was given an opportunity to discuss the situation. Sounds like unusual good sense to me. Second, the school board held an open meeting to talk the whole thing out.

What word have I not used?

Right…
court
.

No lawyers, no lawsuits, no visits from the ACLU. Instead, the community decided that everyone should be heard and that the final decision should take into account the various points of view.

From there, the process moved quickly. The day before the open meeting, the school rescinded the suspensions. The next evening, parents and other members of the community showed up for the meeting and seemed to be, by all accounts, just about evenly split on the issue. Of course, the media were there in unusual numbers. The actor Stanley Tucci also appeared, appar
ently doing research for a documentary about censorship in America.

Meanwhile, teachers at the high school sent out a letter in support of the girls. Next, the New York Civil Liberties Union issued a statement in their defense.

So how did it all end? The community's school board decided to form a committee to set guidelines that would help prevent future incidents of this sort. The school board president, according to an account by reporter Marci Heppner in a local paper, the
Record-Review,
sought to end it all with a sense of balance: “The issue has given us and the community the opportunity to look closely at itself and to engage in a healthy and promising dialogue about school policy, student freedom of speech, censorship, authority, and the management of expectations regarding school-sponsored events.”

The girls were not punished, both sides of the community were heard, officials apparently kept their cool…and the V-word was said.

In another area newspaper, the
Journal News,
reporter Diana Costello summed up the controversy this way:

The U.S. Supreme Court has said students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Public school officials, however, may regulate student expression that substantially disrupts the
school environment or that infringes on the rights of others. Many courts have held that school officials can restrict student speech that is lewd, according to the First Amendment Center.

There you have it. If you can reconcile those two ideas in every situation that arises in your life, you're much smarter than I am. In real life, there's enough leeway there for the issues to continue to be debated all across the land.

For instance, I still think, as I said on my TV program, that the final decision not to suspend the girls was ridiculous.

For their trouble, the three girls wound up on national television, where they giggled their way irresponsibly through the controversy, then their superintendent, Robert Lichtenfeld, folded under pressure from the Civil Liberties Union and from some foolish parents.

It seems to me that the superintendent is the villain in this episode. He humiliated the principal at the school by undercutting his authority. And, if it's true that the girls did promise in advance not to say the word, then he sent a very bad message to all students in the district: It's okay to be deceitful.

Yes, the community served by John Jay High School obviously included a number of kids and adults who believed the girls were being censored. But that doesn't mean that the mouthy trio should be allowed to get away with falsifying their story. Remember, you have a right to be truthful. If you are dishonest,
all of your other rights collapse. Why? Because all of the rest of us have a right for you to be truthful to us. That's the only way the whole thing can work.

Just the opposite of the John Jay affair happened in a small town in Nevada recently. When a high school literary magazine published a poem that criticized the townspeople, members of the community complained to school officials, who took the issue of the magazine out of circulation. Was this censorship? The kids thought so.

Similar things can happen to teachers, too. In a North Carolina town, drama teacher Peggy Boring was generally respected for directing student performances that won awards in state competitions.

But that changed when her production of a play called
Independence
appeared in a regional competition. It turned out that the play centered upon the efforts of a single mother to help her three unhappy daughters, one of whom was a lesbian. Although the play won seventeen out of twenty-one awards at the competition, several ministers in the community took issue with it.
Blasphemy, premarital sex, homosexuality,
and
promiscuity
were the words they used to describe its content. Although the play was not performed at the school, a section of it had been presented in one English class. A student in that class complained, prompting her parents to complain, too. The teacher was subsequently transferred to another school as punishment.

Eventually, the teacher brought a lawsuit against the school, and the case was tried in the courts, but the federal appeals court
threw it out by a vote of 7–6. Close call again. Seven judges felt strongly; the six on the other side felt just as strongly. As I write, the U.S. Supreme Court is deciding whether or not to hear the case.

There were many issues involved here—a teacher's arguable right to freedom from censorship, a student's arguable right not to hear or see material in class that can be perceived as offensive, the principal's arguable right to determine what students are taught—but the point is that, in a way very different from the New York story, the community got involved.

So, here's the bottom line: Your rights as a kid are sometimes going to be determined by the ideas and beliefs of the community in which you live.

You can decide to buck the tide and try to change the community. You can protest. You can get the ACLU or whomever to represent you in court.

But when the community's interest is involved, it's probably best to get everyone to calm down and negotiate.

This free-speech thing is pretty tricky. Particularly when politics is involved.

Pink, a singer you probably know something about, shocked some Americans and amused others, I guess, when she came out with a song called “Dear Mr. President.” The lady does not like George Bush, his actions and policies, and maybe his pet dog. She pulled no punches.

Fine. But when Molly Shoul, ten years old, decided to perform the ditty at her elementary school's talent show in Coral Springs, Florida, the principal stepped in. By now, you know the
drill. The principal said the song was too political and otherwise inappropriate for kids in grammar school. Molly's mother, a high school teacher, accused the teacher of “just running scared…[not wanting] to upset any parents.” Molly herself noted only that the song is “really cool.”

And about a year before, the same school district allowed a high school kid to sport a shirt charging that the president is an
INTERNATIONAL TERRORIST
. He won the right after some back-and-forth with officials, but still.

Molly was pretty flexible. She substituted a song about teenage girls competing for the love of some boy.

What does all of this mean? You tell me. But for one thing, these debates are springing up in schools all across America, and you can bet that's going to continue. You can also bet there will always be at least two sides, and two interpretations of rights. Here, what's most important? Molly's right to attack Bush in song? The principal's right to protect the other children from disturbing words? Mrs. Shoul's rights…the rights of the other parents (who are probably divided)?

You decide. Because, sooner or later, you're going to have to.

STICKING UP FOR OTHERS

Any kind of bullying is a bad thing. I make that point again and again on
The Factor.
I have to. The bullying stories come in from all across the country like a weekly tsunami. I mean it.

So wouldn't it be a good thing if a kid in East Hartford, Con
necticut, writes a letter to the school newspaper that exposes bullying?

Well, maybe, but the school principal wouldn't let the letter be printed.

This quote from the student's letter may offer a clue to what irked the principal:

Why is the staff so bent on us wearing I.D.'s and not swearing, but when they hear someone getting ranked on they have nothing to say?

You got it. The principal didn't like the idea that the letter supposedly suggested, in his words, “that all the teachers look the other way.”

Oh, and he also said the paper has a policy against printing letters that are unsigned.

See, the kid who wrote it wanted to remain anonymous. He was afraid that he would be (I know! You guessed it!) bullied because of it.

You can see that I think the principal is a pinhead. But, and here is the point, school administrators can almost always exercise their right to keep something they don't like out of a school-sponsored publication.

End of story?

No way. Several students were inspired to make an end run around their principal by sending letters, signed and unsigned, to the local newspaper, the
Journal Inquirer.
So, what could have been a discussion on campus sparked by a letter to the school
newspaper turned into a big controversy that got the attention of the whole community.

Good for you, kids.

Not too smart, principal.

You draw your own conclusions here, but there are times when it's not a good idea to claim a right—in this case, the school's right to censor the newspaper—if someone else is going to be sharp enough to figure out how to exercise their rights. I think the students won a scuffle that did not have to take place.

FREEDOM OF THE PRESS?

I hate to say it, but sometimes your rights are going to be ignored in the strangest places. Suppose you're a senior girl in high school who wins a national contest because you write really good news articles. Pretty cool, right? Then suppose a group of women journalists brings you to a luncheon at a fine hotel in New York City where you and other winners will be honored. Then suppose that Rosie O'Donnell is the guest speaker and she makes the air purple with nasty language that is not allowed in ANY legitimate newspaper.

Well, stop supposing. That actually happened recently. What did the professonal journalists say? That the award-winning girls were getting a dose of “reality.” I think those young ladies had the right not to hear such trash. I think the whole thing was insulting. But their “role models” just laughed. Not good, kid.

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