Tag Archives: ACLU

Singing an Old Familiar Song

Yesterday, I participated in the ACLU of Indiana’s much-lauded “First Wednesday” series. I was on a panel titled “The Constitution: Peruse It or Lose It.”   The program was introduced by ACLU Executive Director Jane Henegar; the moderator was local businessman and owner of the IBJ, Mickey Maurer; the two other panelists were Michael Gordon, who teaches government at Munster High School, and State Senator Brant Hershmann.

Michael Gordon was superb. If we could clone this guy and put a clone in every high school government class, we might beat this civic deficit problem. And this event may have marked the first time I’ve ever agreed with Sen. Hershmann (who opposes any and all gun regulations, and sponsored the ban on same-sex marriage, among other things).

The format was informal, with Mickey goading the panelists (and making an effort to promote fireworks–an effort that failed). Although there were no scripts, we each were allowed a brief opening statement, and I thought I’d share mine.

I know this will seem all too familiar to regular readers, but really–it can’t be said too often!

Only 36% of Americans know we have three branches of government. Why does that freak me out?  Why is civic literacy important?

 This is a country where, increasingly, people read different books and newspapers, visit different blogs, watch different television programs, attend different churches and even speak different languages—where the information and beliefs we all share are diminishing and our variety and diversity are growing. Our constitutional values, our history and governing philosophy are ultimately all that Americans have in common.

 Like all human enterprises, governments have their ups and downs. In the United States, however, the consequences of the “down” periods are potentially more serious than in more homogeneous nations, because this is a country based upon what Todd Gitlin has called a covenant. Americans don’t share a single ethnicity, religion or race. (Culture warriors to the contrary, we never have.) We don’t share a comprehensive worldview. What we do share is a set of values, and when we don’t know what those values are or where they came from, we lose a critical part of what it is that makes us Americans.

 At the end of the day, our public policies must be aligned with and supportive of our most fundamental values; the people we elect must demonstrate that they understand, respect and live up to those values; and the electorate has to be sufficiently knowledgeable about those values to hold public officials accountable. We can’t do that if we don’t know what those values are or where they came from.

 In a country that celebrates individual rights and respects individual liberty, there will always be dissent, differences of opinion, and struggles for power. But there are different kinds of discord, and they aren’t all equal. When we argue from within the constitutional culture—when we argue about the proper application of the American Idea to new situations or to previously marginalized populations—we strengthen our bonds and learn how to bridge our differences. When those arguments are between people trying to rewrite history and citizens who don’t know better, we undermine our political institutions and erode social trust.

 At our new Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI, we intend to research a large number of unanswered questions. What, for example, do citizens need to know? Why have previous efforts to improve civics instruction lacked staying power?  How is civic ignorance implicated in our currently toxic politics?

 At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if I think the Establishment Clause requires a certain result and you think it requires a different one. What matters is that we both know what the Establishment Clause is, and what value it was meant to protect. It doesn’t matter whether I think Freedom of the Press extends to bloggers and you disagree. It matters a lot that we both know what Freedom of the Press means, and why it was considered essential to the maintenance of trustworthy government.

 Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. If I think this is a table and you think it’s a chair, we aren’t going to have a very productive discussion about its use. We don’t need citizens who all agree about the implications of our founding decisions, or who even agree with the decisions themselves.

But we desperately need citizens who share an understanding of what those decisions were.

 

 

Boobs and “Boobies”

Yesterday, I received a news release from the Indiana ACLU announcing the organization’s representation of a middle-school student. As the release recounted the facts of the case,

 

The minor child, “L.G.,” is a student at Roosevelt Middle School, which is part of the Twin Lakes School Corporation in Monticello, Ind. In early January, school officials instructed the student to turn inside-out a silicone bracelet that contains the message “I© (heart) BOOBIES” as well as the ribbon symbol for breast cancer awareness, and at that time informed the student he could be expelled if he continued to wear the bracelet to school.

The student wore the “I © (heart) BOOBIES” bracelet to assist with breaking down the barriers that make it difficult for young people to talk about breast cancer. The bracelets help support the work of the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Research Fund. Carol Baldwin is the mother of the Baldwin brothers, generally known as Hollywood actors and activists. The bracelets are popular among students at Roosevelt Middle School, and have not disrupted the educational environment.

“Decades ago the Supreme Court stressed that students do not shed their First Amendment rights when they enter school buildings,” said Ken Falk, legal director of the ACLU of Indiana, who is representing L.G.

“The bracelet did not disrupt the educational environment, and the speech here, designed to assist in the fight against breast cancer, is not profane, indecent, lewd, vulgar, or offensive to school purposes, and is therefore protected speech under the First Amendment,” added Falk.

I have two reactions to the school’s position–both negative.

First, why do public school officials constantly fixate on aspects of student behavior that are either irrelevant to their education or, as here, offer educational possibilities? Why not use students’ interest in breast cancer as a “hook” for science education and civic engagement? Even if teenage boys are “tittering”–forgive the pun–about “boobies” (there is no indication of such reaction but I had sons and I’m certainly willing to entertain the possibility), the focus on cancer clearly offers multiple opportunities for positive educational experiences.

And second, why don’t public school officials respect the constitutional rights of students? The law in this area is, as Ken Falk notes, pretty clear. How do we expect to raise a generation that understands and respects the constitution when those charged with their education repeatedly model unconstitutional behaviors? Authoritarian schools do not produce democratically-skilled students.

Knowledge of the word “boobies” is not nearly as damaging as being educated by people who think it’s important to pick a fight over its use.

Stop the Presses! ACLU Supports Christian Athletes

One of the great myths promulgated by the Christian Right is that the ACLU is “anti-religion” and “anti-Christian.” Those bent on demonizing the organization conveniently overlook the many cases in which the ACLU represents the rights of religious folks. When I was Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, it used to irritate me that we got no credit for being principled.

That is mostly because so few people understand what the principles are.

A friend just alerted me to a Virginia news item about that state’s ACLU, which has defended the right of student athletes to tape copies of the Ten Commandments to their lockers.

For people who are constitutionally literate, this position hardly comes as a surprise. If a school allows students to post items on their lockers, it cannot dictate the content of those items (other than forbidding obscenity). The school could constitutionally forbid the posting of anything at all, but if it does allow students to express themselves in that fashion, the  First Amendment’s Free Speech doctrine prohibits the school from picking and choosing among the messages.

If, on the other hand, a public school posts the Ten Commandments, the school is violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because the school is an agency of government, and government cannot endorse or sponsor religion.

There’s nothing inconsistent here. The point in both cases is to limit the authority of government.

In our legal system, individuals get to decide what they say and believe, free of government interference. That’s the principle the ACLU is protecting, and it isn’t anti-religious. It’s pro-individual liberty.