Many would be surprised by the charge that American schools are engaged in the widespread and court-sanctioned denial of the constitutional rights of their students. Yet as Catherine J. Ross demonstrates in Lessons in Censorship: How Schools and Courts Subvert Students’ First Amendment Rights, that is precisely the case. In an address this week to the annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers, Ross, Professor of Law at George Washington University and Visiting Scholar at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, laid bare the decades-long campaign against free speech in American schools and its implications for democracy, as well as its significance for the publishing industry, a long-standing bulwark against assaults on First Amendment rights. The text of her address is below.
Publishing is a key institution for realizing the values of free expression. This organization—through the Freedom to Read Committee and other activities designed to combat censorship—plays a leadership role, and it is an honor to address you today.
It’s no secret that in many—even most—parts of the world principles of free speech have never been accepted or are not currently being honored. The most dramatic, and certainly best known incidents, involve the assassin’s veto: private persons killing those who publish ideas some find offensive, exemplified by the threats following depictions of the prophet in Denmark and the Charlie Hebdo attack.
But that is the tip of the iceberg, as the New York Times pointed out in an editorial yesterday, in which it condemned recent developments in Western Europe where anti-terrorism laws are being used to prosecute puppeteers, tweeters, and peaceful demonstrators.
In other parts of the world:
- Liberal bloggers are murdered in Bangladesh,
- India arrests student protesters,
- And the highest court in Malaysia held last week that a yellow t-shirt calling for clean government could be banned as a threat to national security.
But we should not be smug, or assume our own house is in order. I’ll begin by reminding you about some of the fundamental precepts of the First Amendment’s Speech Clause, before turning to the state of free speech on American college campuses. Then I will share my research on the fragile state of expressive freedom in public schools, grades k-12. I’ll close with some reflections on the special role the people in this room play in preserving First Amendment freedoms.
I. First Amendment Freedom of Speech
The Speech Clause of the First Amendment is very concise: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.”
This means the government—at every level, from small towns to the federal government, and anyone acting on behalf of the government—may not silence speech because of its content or viewpoint. The First Amendment does not limit the ability of private individuals or organizations to limit expression.
The books your companies put into circulation enter a civic culture that may be more or less receptive to discord, dissent and unsettling ideas some would prefer not to be exposed to.