Stifling Speech

Leah Mulaly and Beth Rozacky

     When the president makes a speech, people listen if they please. When the president makes a speech directly to school children, the school children should be allowed to listen if they so desire. However, when President Obama gave a live address to the school children of America on September 8, it was not heard by the students in LISD.

     The reason stated for silencing the speech could be found in a statement given to teachers and published on LISD’s web site that read, “Due to the logistics of making a webcast available during that time of the school day, we will not be showing this address in LISD classrooms or campuses.” We contacted Dick Ellis, LISD Communications Director, for further elaboration and to offer him an opportunity to be interviewed for this story, but he declined, referring us to the statement posted on the LISD web site. The district directed teachers not to watch the speech live with students.

     So why is it that other school districts, less fortunate than us from a technology standpoint, could watch the address? Leander ISD has a highly developed technology platform and didn’t seem to have a problem streaming the Presidential inauguration last year. Other nearby school districts were at least given the option to watch the address — Austin ISD had both an opt-out and an opt-in policy for the students, depending on the decisions of individual teachers to show or not show the speech.

     For many schools in the district, it wasn’t necessary to watch the speech in webcast form, as the speech was broadcast over news networks on TV.

     In addition, there was an open records request requiring teachers and staff to forward any e-mails sent regarding President Obama’s speech to school children. It is not clear whether the request came from pro-speech or anti-speech advocates.

     One possible reason for banning the speech could be the fear of political backlash from conservatives in the district. Those against showing the speech live decried the loss of an educational opportunity. A speech of national renown, such as this address to school children, presented a great learning tool to classes like Government and U.S. History. Almost any speech made by any President will become part of history—this was a chance to see history as it was being made; unfortunately, LISD students were denied the opportunity to see the live rendition. Additionally, English classes could analyze President Obama’s rhetoric and such—another missed educational opportunity.

     Presidents have spoken directly to school children about the importance of education in the past, without controversy. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush directly addressed students long before this debacle. President Obama’s speech wasn’t even about politics; it was simply an inspiring pep talk for the students of America. It was an encouragement to stay in school, take responsibility for their futures and keep their grades up.

     Understandably, some parents did not want their children to see the president’s address, either because of political views or simply because they think class time should be better utilized. And, I suppose, the district was protecting its teachers from having to deal with upset parents. Had the teachers been given the personal choice to show the speech, they would be in the line of fire and not the district as a whole. On the other hand, teachers are professional adults, charged with determining educational importance of material, who make curriculum decisions all the time. The district even ruled out the possibility of having a parent certified opt-in program. Students weren’t allowed to listen to the address even if they obtained parental consent. An opt-in/opt-out program, such as the one Austin ISD offered, possibly could have helped the district avoid some parental backlash and allowed students to see the speech live as well.

     It seems like the district is most afraid of angry parents, but banning the speech didn’t protect them by any means. Many parents contacted the district wanting to know why their children couldn’t watch the speech. Having a mandatory requirement, either for or against the speech, was bound to prompt negative reactions. Perhaps LISD could have left the decision up to the students and teachers, at least at the high school level.

     More disturbing than the loss of an educational opportunity is the precedent that is being set. The opposition to the address closed ranks and prevented it from being seen in schools. Now the repercussions of this decision must be faced. The forces of censorship will only be emboldened—who knows what they will find objectionable next? This debacle also exposes a dangerous double-standard held in regards to high school students: we are capable enough to face AP classes and college applications, but cannot form our own opinions about a simple speech. This is the generation that will be trusted with the future of this government. If they cannot be trusted to watch a non-political address directed at them and glean their own insights about its contents, then how can we be expected to chart an appropriate course for the future?