Free Speech, Good Conduct, the School to Prison Pipeline and the Educational Imperative

Recently, there has been a fascinating discussion concerning free speech and learning going on online that I wanted to explore and comment on. Last week, David Drury wrote an article in the Hartford Courant about teens facing fines for swearing at Windsor High School.

Andy Thibault posted a letter from Jon Schoenhorn to the Hartford Courant entitled Swearing In School Is Not A Crime. Jon writes:

Once again, school officials are foolishly trying to use the police to enforce good manners …
Apparently this principal doesn't understand that constitutional free speech protects bad manners and language in criminal prosecutions, unless the intent of the speaker is to annoy and harass, or unless the language constitutes "fighting words" — that is, words likely to provoke a violent reaction.

I got to know both Andy and Jon through my coverage of the Avery Doninger case. Andy has provided great coverage on the case and Jon is the lawyer representing the Doningers. My initial reaction was to side with them on this issue.

However, going back to the Hartford Courant, it says that students "who use profanity directed toward a teacher, toward another student in class or during a verbal altercation in the hallway or cafeteria," will be ticketed. It may well be that the intent and the actual practice will be to only ticket students whose language constitutes fighting words and falls very nicely within the bounds of free speech laws.

Yet there are also deeper issues. First, how big a concern is “fighting words” at Windsor High School. According to the Courant article, there were some parents “that expressed some surprise over Sills' letter, since there had been no communication about what led up to it.” Perhaps it is not only the students who have not been communicating as effectively as they could be.

Another concern that has come up with this is that by using police, Windsor High School may be perpetuating or expanding the school to prison pipeline. Schools that use police to address behavior problems may be keeping the immediate behavior problems a little bit better under control, but may ultimately be adding to problems by causing student to think of themselves as in conflict with the legal system and not simply in conflict with their teachers. On the other hand, it may be that the best way to get students to learn more effective ways of dealing with their anger and frustration than using fighting words in school is to hit them where it hurts most, in their pocketbooks.

Yet perhaps, there are even better ways to address this. Schools are supposed to be learning environments. Fighting words can disrupt a learning environment, but they may also be opportunities for deeper learning. Should Windsor High School have a special session on Free Speech? A couple years ago, I went with Avery Doninger to Windsor High School to talk about her case. She had learned a lot from her experience. She learned that some popular colloquial words for, such as using “Douchebag” when you mean “jerk”, may hamper ones efforts to get a message across. She also learned the importance of being allowed to get ones message across and standing up for that right. She shared this learning with students at Windsor High School and I think it was a great educational event.

Likewise, should the school have classes in anger management and learning better ways of dealing with conflict than resorting to fighting words, or for that matter, resorting to $103 tickets? Perhaps such classes could be offered where students, teachers and administrators are all the learners in the class.

Ultimately, I hope that all my friends on all sides of this discussion return to the educational imperative. What are the goals of public education? What are the best means of achieving these goals? In my mind, learning about the importance of free speech, what it means, and how to stand up for it, as well as learning about better ways of dealing with anger and frustration than using fighting words are important parts of this educational imperative. They aren’t part of the Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMTs), but perhaps they should be. The race to the top, and breaking the school to prison pipeline are both important goals that such learning could facilitate.

What do you think?

Random Updates

First the first time in many days, I’ve caught up on the email, and read my minimum quota of blog posts. By caught up on email, I mean that I’ve read every email that has come into my two main email accounts this month. I still have 167 to reply to and 92 of them are marked urgent in my in box, and with another 43 marked urgent stuck away in various folders.

Some emails will be a bit of work to respond to. I’ve been helping various people out with their websites, and some of the responses are long. Others, should really be worked into blog posts, but I may not ever get around to giving them the attention they need. So, instead, I’m going to highlight various things

Grapski v. Alachua

One issue I’ve been following closely is the case of Charlie Grapski and his various issues with assorted authorities in Alachua County Florida. Earlier this month, Circuit Judge James Nilon called Charlie Grapski a ‘bully’.

Circuit Judge James Nilon shook his head as he looked at Alachua political activist Charles Grapski. …

“That day, you didn’t want to seek access to the courts,” Nilon said. “…You couldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Nilon said Grapski uses his “intellect to bully people.”

“In my view, you don’t know where your individual liberties end,” Nilon said.

A few weeks later, A state district court ruled that Alachua violated state open records law. Charlie Grapski wouldn’t seek no for an answer when the county was breaking the law. Instead of being arrested and bullied by the police, he should have been given a medal.

Upcoming Events

January 25th Robert Burns Birthday! Hoist a dram to wash down a bite of haggis as we honor the famous Scottish Bard. Also, the Beecher Road Parent Teacher Organization is having a big meeting in the evening.

January 26th, 9:30 A Forum on State Budget Reform and Connecticut’s Economic Development Strategies will take place in the Old Judiciary Room at the State Capitol in Hartford.

January 29th The movie, “The End of Poverty?” will return to New York City showing at the Cinema Village.

January 31st A Democratic “Party for the Party” will take place Sunday afternoon from 4 to 6 PM at The Fat Cat Company, 9 Wall Street, Norwalk, CT. This is a free party with a chance to meet candidates for Senator, Governor, Congress, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Comptroller, Attorney General and the State Legislature.

February 5th and 6th For those of you interested in traditional journalism, the New England Newspaper and Press Association 2010 Convention will take place in Boston.

February 6th For those interested in newer forms of journalism, PodCampWesternMass will take place Westfield State College.

A final note: Today is National Pie Day. Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford, CT is having a special pie sale today and tomorrow to celebrate.

There are a lot of other random updates that I should include, but that’s good enough for now. Time to step away from the computer and enjoy the beautiful day.

Understanding the Citizen’s United Ruling

A top story on Google News and a trending topic on Twitter right now is the United States Supreme Court decision on Citizen’s United v. FEC. There are many aspects to this case, and many discussions are taking place on conference calls, emails, Facebook and beyond.

The reaction has been strong and fast. Rep. Alan Grayson referred to this as “the worst Supreme Court decision since the Dred Scott case.” Campaign Legal Center president Trevor Scott described the ruling as a historic mistake by activist judges. Common Cause president Bob Edgar described this as the superbowl of really bad decisions, returning us to a day when robber barons ruled. Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer described the decision as a disaster for the American people and a very dark day for the Supreme Court. Senator Chris Dodd describes this as “a terrible day for American Democracy” where the “Supreme Court has essentially given corporations free rein to drown out the voices of the America people.”

To illustrate Trevor Scott’s comment, it is worth nothing that the ruling strikes down over a century of U.S. Campaign law, overruled three Supreme Court rulings with no changes to justify overruling the previous rulings other than different justices on the bench, abandons judicial restraint by making a very broad ruling on very narrowly defined issues and shows distain for Congresses judgments about the political process.

In essence, what the ruling does is allow corporations to make unlimited independent expenditures supporting or opposing candidates. While much of the focus has been on political advertisements, which is what the initial case was about, this ruling allows for any sort of expenditures, such as direct mailings, paying people to go door to door to advocate for or against political candidates, and any other forms of independent expenditures.

How much money are we talking about? Well, if just the top hundred corporations in the United States each contributed 1% of their 2008 profits to campaigning for Presidential candidates, that would be over twice the total amount spent by all the candidates in the 2008 Presidential Election.

The ruling does not lift the ban on direct contributions to campaigns or the use of ‘soft-money’. The disclosure requirements were also upheld, yet are weak since it may be hard to trace the money through a trail of corporations from the corporation making the initial contribution to the corporation that finally makes the independent expenditure.

In terms of fixing the many problems that the Supreme Court decision has generated, there are three common approaches being discussed.

While the court ruling means that there can be no limit on corporate independent expenditures, it does not strike down voluntary public financing laws. One means to balance out the vast increase in the political powers of corporations is to increase public financing of campaigns.

In the U.S. Congress, there is the Fair Elections Now Act that has been introduced by Rep Larson from Connecticut and currently has 126 co-sponsors. One of the most important things people concerned about the Supreme Court decision should do is contact their legislators in Washington and ask them to support the Fair Elections Now Act.

Another effort is to add shareholder accountability to the requirements of corporations. Language has been drafted, but no legislation yet introduced, that would require any corporation to receive permission from a majority of shareholders before making any independent political expenditure.

Perhaps the most complicated effort is working towards a constitutional amendment that would limit or abolish corporate personhood. Constitutional amendments can take a long time, yet Sen. Dodd includes “a constitutional amendment to allow Congress and states to put appropriate limits on campaign spending” as one of the options he intends to pursue.

Over the coming hours and days, we can expect many more statements as well as ideas on how to deal with this problem.

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Citizen’s United Versus Representative Democracy

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and labor unions may make unlimited independent expenditures to support or oppose candidates for election. This is based on two key issues. The first that money is speech, from Buckley v Valeo. The second is that corporations have the same legal rights as humans.

The response has been immediate. People have jokingly question whether that means that people can now marry corporations. It is worth noting that in many states marriage is still restricted to being between one male corporation and one female corporation. People have suggested that dogs or goats should incorporate so that they can have freedom of speech as well, as well as the right to marry, or perhaps even to vote. It is not yet clear if a corporation can run for Congress based on this ruling.

The winners are expected to be the people that produce campaign advertisements, and of course the corporations and labor unions. Other likely winners are likely to be large media corporations selling the ad time and political candidates benefiting from the influx of cash.

The losers are anyone that watches television where there are likely to be many more annoying political ads, as well as anyone who would like our country to be a representative democracy where the representation is the natural people of this country and not just corporate entities.

One other possible winner will be advocacy organizations trying to bring a little sanity back to our political process. Please Contribute Now!

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Citizen's Election Program Hearing: Restrictions on Contributions - Part 2

(Continued from Citizen's Election Program Hearing: Restrictions on Contributions - Part 1.)

Around ten of twelve, Ira Feinberg began his oral arguments concerning the lobbyist restrictions of the Connecticut Citizen’s Election Program before the Second Circuit. He started off by acknowledging that Citizens United v. FEC, which is currently being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court could have an effect on the ruling, but since that case is primarily about corporate independent expenditures, it is not likely. Nonetheless, the Second Circuit might want briefings from the parties in the CEP case after a ruling is made by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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