Sunday, September 6, 2009

Free Speech

Sent to the Hilliard School e-news mailing list on Sept 4, 2009:

The Hilliard City School District learned of President Barack Obama's student address scheduled to air at noon on Tuesday, September 8, just two days ago from several concerned parents. Since then, we have been overwhelmed with phone calls and e-mails both in favor of and against airing the broadcast in our school buildings on Tuesday.

As a district, we take a non-partisan view towards this address. The President of the United States is our nation's leader and a world power* who will be addressing the youth of our country. The intent to speak to students is not unprecedented, as other Presidents have done the same. For educators, this address presents a teachable moment for our students. As a system, it is our responsibility to provide educational opportunities for our students.

As Superintendent of this district, I always make an effort to listen and be responsive to community concerns. This issue has resulted in a divided community outcry that cannot be ignored. In an attempt to bring some calm to our community and be responsive to the concerns on both sides of the issue, I have decided to permit our schools to air the broadcast on Tuesday. Students whose parents prefer they not participate will be provided an alternative activity during the 15-20 minute address.

I understand this decision will be met with mixed emotions; however, I believe it offers an educational opportunity that should be made available to students.

Dale A. McVey


I find it sad and more than a little troubling that the state of affairs in our country has reached a point where it is questionable whether school children should be required to watch an address by the President of the United States, especially a speech directly meant for the kids.

I understand that there are those who disagree with President Obama on things both big and small. I'm one of them. That doesn't mean I wouldn't want my kids to hear what the President has to say. Regardless of whether the name on the White House stationary is Barak Obama or John McCain, the person we elect to be the President of the United States is the constitutional head of the Executive Branch of our federal government for at least the next four years. What he or she has to say is important.

To those parents who are opposed to this, I have one thing to ask: where are you the other 179 days of the school year when your kids are getting their heads filled with stuff from schoolbooks, curriculum, and teachers' words? Do you discuss any of the points of view on other topics presented by our school district to your kids? Do you know what their textbooks say on matters important to you? Have you tried to ascertain whether your kids' teachers are injecting a degree of personal bias that you feel is inappropriate?

After all, none of us really know what the President is going to say (update: the text of the President's address is now available here). Nor will most parents take the time or make the effort to talk to their kids ahead of time about what they think of Mr. Obama's policies and politics. Likewise, few parents will listen to the President's speech, or make time afterward to talk with their kids about it.

Democracy is not a spectator sport. The First Amendment to the US Constitution preserves (not "gives") our right to freedom of speech, and that means sometimes things will be said that we don't agree with. The solution to that is not to suppress freedom of speech, but rather to engage in the debate. And not just by yelling at each other, as we see at some many of these so-called "town meetings" lately, but rather an actual informed and respectful discussion of opposing viewpoints.

This reminds me a lot of the dialog about school economics. People largely ignore the issues until it's time to vote on a levy then, rather than spending the time to gather and analyze pertinent information, make their decision to vote for or against the levy based simply on hearsay, sound bites, and emotion.

Democracy will not survive much more of this.

* I don't think it is appropriate to say "The President of the United States is ... a world power." A more appropriate description is that the United States of America is a world power, and the President of the United States is elected to serve as its Chief Executive and Commander-in-Chief.


  1. As a parent, it is my responsibility to teach my son to have the strength and wisdom to form solid values and to be able to evaluate the opinions of others against that value system.

    Earlier today, I heard a call-in radio show that was debating this point exactly, and I was struck by the same sort of thought you indicated here; namely, how in the world could I hope to "protect" my son from all the other negative speech he'll be exposed to over the course of a school year, let alone the rest of his life.

    I believe it's important, instead, that I teach my son to be able to listen critically to a speech and weigh the message fairly and intelligently.

    I can only hope that our general population is capable of the same.

  2. Paul:

    Exactly right. If the President wants to address kids, the President should be able to address kids. If he crosses the line, there would be political consequences, but a message about the importance of education and staying in school and studying hard would be very appropriate.

    We need to teach respect for the office even if we don't like the policies of its current occupant.

  3. BTW, here's the text of the speech in case anyone wants to preview it:

  4. Thanks D. - here it is again as a clickable link.

    I find this message to be inspirational. He's said some things to the kids that only an African-American President could get away with - along the lines of what Bill Cosby has been saying for a while: Get an education and make something of yourself instead of getting caught up in the culture of poverty, drugs and crime. Don't blame anyone else - you have all the opportunity you need. You just need to get your head right, and make the effort.

    I certainly don't see any partisan brainwashing here.


  5. While I have my doubts about how significant an impact this speech will make on students overall, it surely wouldn't hurt.

    I'm not so worriedabout whether they show it in our schools or not. I am far more concerned that the decision has been made at least 3 times, changing each time seemingly in response to shouting from one group of partisans or another.

    What if there was a truly important decision to be made, such as whether a specific book should be taught in English classes, whether to make Intelligent Design a part of the science curriculum, or whether a certain high school club should be allowed (whether it be ROTC or something GLBT-oriented). Will such decisions be made by the reasoned consideration of facts by professional educators, or as knee-jerk reactions to a some vocal minority?

  6. Mark, in this district? Knee-jerk... or whatever Dublin does!

  7. It wasn't the speech, it was the "support materials". From Obama supporter Camillie Paglia:

    "An example of the provincial amateurism of current White House operations was the way the president's innocuous back-to-school pep talk got sandbagged by imbecilic support materials soliciting students to write fantasy letters to 'help' the president (a coercive directive quickly withdrawn under pressure)."

  8. They should all be voted out just based on their inability to filter out the noise and make a grown-up decision to play the President's speech and tell parents their kid could sit quietly with his hands folded if he didn't want to participate. Knee-jerk is right. As far as "provincial amateurism', what harm could it do for kids to write a letter telling Obama how they are going to study hard, pay attention in school, learn all their spelling words and not take drugs? Sheesh, with all the ruckus you'd have thought each child was going to be told to wear a Che Guevara tee and given a copy of The Little Red Book to read and write a book report. I'm already sick and tired of those who are determined to jam a stick in the spokes of the Obama Administration. Next time, find a candidate you really support and get millions to go door to door supporting him. I do support the approach your trio is proposing Paul. I hope your anti-Obama point of view would not affect your decisions if elected to HCSB.

  9. GS:

    Thanks for your comment.

    I am not anti-Obama by the way. I disagree with some of his ideas, but that doesn't mean I don't want him to have an effective Presidency - one during which this grand experiment in democracy thrives and continues to be a place that, as Tony Blair once said, "more people want to get into than get out of."

    The President of the United States is part leader and part role model. As a young person, I was inspired by JFK - well before I had any understanding of politics (I was in the 5th grade when he was killed). My Dad and I once stood alone, in our Scout uniforms, along a road in my hometown (Charleston WV) on which we knew his motorcade would pass. Dad ordered "Attention!" and "Hand Salute" and we stood there as they approached. His limo slowed, and as they passed, the President lowered his window and waved back. It's a cherished memory.

    This speech the President gave to the kids of our country may have profound consequences that we won't fully appreciate for a decade of more - long after he leaves office. I felt he was talking right to the urban Black kids who feel their best possible future is dealing drugs or getting pregnant.

    And please don't accuse me of being bigoted - I am honored to have been a member of the Board of Directors of the National Black Programming Consortium for eight years, and to my knowlege, am the only White person to have served on that Board in its 30 year history. One of the key lessons I have learned being part of this organization, and in ministry at my church, is that our country is deeply threatened by this culture of poverty and crime which thrives in our urban centers.

    No prior President has had the ability to say to (and show) those young folks that a better future is available to them if they make the choice and work hard. Will that motivate a few, or millions? I hope it's the latter.

    So yes, I'll likely disagree with the President on some of his philosophies and decisions. But I applaud him on this one, and hope he keeps talking to the kids this way.


  10. Thanks for that well- thought response Paul. I appreciate it!