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Smart v. Stupid

How the Supreme Court ruined your child’s civics education

The following is excerpted from the forthcoming book, "The Rise of Stupidity – how dumb ideas are remaking America in their own image."

In the 1980s the United States was in one of its periodic one-step-forward, two-steps-back conservative retrenchments. The battles for civil rights and the Vietnam War had divided the country for two decades. By 1980, conflict-weary Americans were hungry for civil calm. Meanwhile, new President Ronald Reagan was claiming “a mandate to impose a voluntary return to traditional values.” He also called for a constitutional amendment that would require students to hear (arguably Christian) prayer in public schools. During that time, much attention also was devoted to how to create greater order in the public school classroom.

It was in this context that a hoax about school discipline was making the rounds. The widely read (and reported) chain fax compared a list of trivial school discipline problems teachers named in the 1940s — like gum chewing, making noise and running in the hall — to a similar list from the 1980s that included rape, assault and robbery. Widely cited during the era by hundreds of newspapers, conservative columnist George Will, and even some university presidents, the comparison turns out to have been entirely made up by a man named T. Cullen Davis. Davis was an anti-sex education, anti-evolution activist who had earlier been acquitted of killing his wife’s lover.

And so, while Reagan speeches harkened back to an uncomplicated past that never existed, and opinion leaders were relying on made-up facts, the United States Supreme Court agreed to take the case of Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser. The case was brought by the father of Matthew N. Fraser, a student who had given a speech (that arguably contained sexual double-entendre) at a school assembly. This kind of small infraction probably didn’t warrant SCOTUS review.

It was a short. funny speech in the manner of adolescent humor. But in the context of the social era, the court used it as an opportunity to define order in the classroom. In the ruling they held that school administrators could punish free speech they found to be “disruptive.”

Under the First Amendment, the use of an offensive form of expression may not be prohibited to adults making what the speaker considers a political point, but it does not follow that the same latitude must be permitted to children in a public school.”

The original decision likely would have been consigned to the dustbin of obscurity except for one other sentence:

The inculcation of these values is truly the work of the school, and the determination of what manner of speech is inappropriate properly rests with the school board.”

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School officials were now free to determine what constituted “disruptive” merely by labeling it so, whether or not any disruption had (or would) ever occur. No evidence was required. They were then free to punish the identified young citizen in any way they’d like — including expulsion — without judicial remedy. This in loco judicium approach, where some guy’s opinion is deemed legally sufficient, is rare in U.S. law. (Notably, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law relies on the same sort of logic.) The decision was an invitation for a prude, zealot, or fanatic to impose his or her social norms on an entire community of young people. School officials could outlaw anything that made them uncomfortable — and they did.

These excesses are familiar to many parents with school-age children. The orderly decisions many principals make — in dress code, speech prohibition, imposition of strict silence, or prohibiting musical expression — are sometimes rooted in their own visceral reactions, rather than calculated assessments. Today’s principle can dispose of inconvenience or personal dislike merely by waving a hand and saying “it’s disruptive.”

On the near end of the spectrum are school rules that require students to conform to expression norms. At Lenoir City High School (in Tennessee) for example, atheist student Krystal Myers, editor of the school newspaper, was prevented from writing an editorial about the school’s policy of making students listen to prayer on the public-address system. Constance McMillen was barred from her Itawamba High (Mississippi) senior prom for being gay. Transgender students are routinely barred from senior class pictures when they follow the other sex dress code. It’s disruptive to the yearbook, it seems.

Some prude-rules are less obvious, like gender-based seating charts and eccentric lunchroom rules. Or the one at Reservoir High School (Maryland): A principal there decided that students could not stand up at games to cheer for their teams because it’s disruptive. Express your enthusiasm only while seated, young man.

Today our children spend a large share of their waking hours being taught that their civic responsibility is to behave as proscribed by the nearest authority figure. They spend half of their formative life in an environment where good order is more important than good sense.

You might think that this doesn’t really matter; that exposing school children to a public life without rights doesn’t affect their adult views. But a survey of nearly 110,000 high school students, teachers and administrators found that “Half believe the government can censor the Internet,” and “more than a third think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.”

The surveyors blame a decline in civics education for the problem. But another plausible explanation is that the lack of experience of civic rights leads students to believe that these rights don’t really exist. After all, wasn’t student government originally envisioned as a way to prepare young citizens for adult civic life? The social and civics lessons we teach in school do have an impact.

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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U.S. Supreme Court

The Guardian of Law at the main entrance of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The decision was an invitation for a prude, zealot, or fanatic to impose his or her own social norms on an entire community of young people.