Free Speech and Public Schools

The Detroit News’ Bill Johnson wrote an excellent defense of the First Amendment rights of students. The event that sparked his column was a controversy at the Plymouth-Salem High School newspaper. Student Chris Mackinder wrote a column for the newspaper criticizing Black History Month.

I have not read Mackinder’s column, but as Johnson summarizes it, Mackinder essentially argued that having a separate history month for Blacks only encourages racial divisions. After the column came out, Mackinder apologized as did the teacher, Mary Lou Nagy, who allowed the column to be published. Nagy was also subjected to some undisclosed disciplinary action. The school issued guidelines for future columns saying that essentially they have to be toned down so as not to offend anyone.

But as Johnson notes,

Mackinder was bold enough to say essentially what others may be thinking and lack the courage to say.

Which is not to say that Johnson necessarily agrees with Mackinder, but pretending that such views don’t exist doesn’t help anyone.

The scary thing is that Americans seem more and more willing to censor such views. Johnson reports on a recent poll by the Freedom Forum which asked people if public statements that were considered racially offensive should be censored. Two-thirds of those surveyed said that such views should not be tolerated in American society.

Few people these days seem to agree with Johnson who writes that,

The First Amendment doesn’t discriminate against those who would communicate bigoted and reprehensible expressions. Enduring offensive speech is a small price to pay to preserve the larger body of freedoms that we all enjoy. Like what Mackinder said or not, his right to express unpopular opinions is the cornerstone of our democracy.


Free speech meets political correctness in Canton. Bill Johnson, The Detroit News, March 9, 2001.

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