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GUEST OPINION: Teacher needs a few lessons, too

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By GENE POLICINSKI
First Amendment Center
In this contentious election year, it seems almost quaint to hear someone insist that it’s socially incorrect — and possibly illegal — to criticize the president of the United States as opposed to a candidate for the office.

Quaint, except that: (1) the misguided guidance came from a high school teacher in North Carolina; (2) her statements were flawed on the “socially incorrect” point and plain wrong as to illegality; and (3) her words were aimed at young people whose rights to freedom of speech don’t disappear when they enter a classroom.

The exchange began as students discussed reports of schoolhouse bullying by both likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.

The teacher went on a rant, saying Obama was off-limits. It was captured for all to experience on a YouTube video.

A teachable moment, surely — though more for the teacher than the students.

And perhaps for all of us. Let’s go back to school ourselves for a moment and study those three points.

(1) A social studies teacher ought to know more about the First Amendment, the five freedoms it protects, and how prized dissent, critical thinking and critical opinions should be in a representative democracy.

A teacher should know that divergent opinions — yes, sometimes harshly stated or socially incorrect — are more than merely tolerated or grudgingly permitted. Differing views, however freely expressed, are embedded in the political DNA of this nation.

We need look no further than the Federalist Papers or the Declaration of Independence, and the debates about both, for political expression that was politically incorrect to some in their day. But documents and debates helped our nation’s Founders coalesce around what came to be our core ideals.

(2) It should be obvious that even as the First Amendment protects dissent, it just as certainly does not mandate respect. Nor does it require politeness, majority approval or impeccable logic.

Certainly the office of president, many would say, ought to deserve a measure of respect for the duties it entails and the responsibilities it imposes on any elected occupant. But reverence is nowhere required by law.

In fact, we did try once to make it a crime to publicly criticize the president (and Congress, too). That was in 1798, with the Alien and Sedition Acts, enacted a mere seven years after the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791.

Some newspaper editors were jailed for their dissenting views. But public reaction was so sour that the four laws making up the acts were repealed or allowed to expire in 1802.

We do distinguish between those offering harsh comments and those making real threats, of course. But it’s criminal conduct or the true threat thereof that brings criminal charges, not hot words and even hotter emotions.

(3) Anyone can get caught up emotionally in the moment, or misstate facts. But any educator ought to recognize automatically that the classroom should be the place where disparate opinions are most welcome.

Foremost, we all should keep in mind that students do not — in the words of the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District — “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Teaching is an undervalued, difficult and demanding job.

One failure by a single teacher ought not to overshadow the efforts and successes of thousands upon thousands of educators who work hard every day to meet the challenges of their profession.

But annual surveys by the First Amendment Center show that very few of us — since 1997, never more than 6 of 100 adults — can name all five freedoms in the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

Books and lectures are one means of fixing that failure for the next generation. But those lessons will succeed only if those academic methods are buttressed by a second approach: teaching by example

Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, is a veteran journalist whose career has included work in newspapers, radio, television and online.