Monday, December 13, 2010

Freedom for the Thought We Hate

This past weekend, a private memorial service was held to honor Elizabeth Edwards, who died of breast cancer. Yet not every voice in the vicinity of the service was respectful. A handful of protesters, according to the Huffington Post , who are followers of Rev. Fred Phelps, head of the Westboro Baptist Church, shouted slogans against Ms. Edwards and held up signs suggesting that God once killed her 16 year old son as punishment for her political views and that her own death was divinely inspired.

This is not the first time Phelps and his group have protested at a funeral. In fact, they have protested at a few hundred funerals over the past 10 years. Their most famous protest is now an important case before the current Supreme Court, Snyder v. Phelps. The Court must decide if there should be any limits on free speech—even vile and offensive speech such as the words of Phelps and his followers.  (Here is a link to the story from National Public Radio). 

In brief, the case centers on Phelps's legal protest of Cpl. Mathew Snyder, who died in Iraq. When his family gathered to pay their last respects, they were confronted with picketers who showed up holding signs that read "God Hates Fags" and "You're Going to Hell." (They do not suggest that Snyder was gay. Instead, they hope to call attention to their larger message that the war is a reflection of God's judgment). The protesters did not crash the church, and in fact stayed within the grounds specified by local authorities—as they have at every other protest.

A lower court awarded a $5 million judgment against the picketers, but a federal appeals court invalidated that judgment against the picketers, concluding that even outrageous opinion is protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. They further ordered Snyder to pay Phelps's legal fees. Phelps sees his message as guaranteed by the First Amendment and insists that his views are an expression of his religious beliefs—that "boys are coming home in body bags. That's the punishment of God almighty upon this nation." Here is a short recording of the case as it played out in front of the Supreme Court. Click on the link below to listen without leaving the page:

Listen to Snyder v. Phelps

Should there be limits on free speech—or should the court preserve free speech even for the thought it hates? 

UPDATE: "Justices Rule for Protesters at Military Funerals"

Friday, December 10, 2010

How Many Light Bulbs Does It Take to Screw Up a School?

Diane Ravitch -- the one-time champion of standardized testing -- now believes that "at the present time public education is in peril."  Schools, she insists, must be infused with "the substance of genuine learning" (i.e., learning for its own sake and NOT for the sake of a one- size-fits-all standardized test).  She calls for schools that "raise questions...explore controversies and encourage the use of primary source documents."  How well does New Trier do this? What adults in your life exhibit the sort of life skills and intellectual habits and emotional gifts that you would like to possess? Where were such qualities learned?

Or you might look at this another way. At last month's Institute Day, our keynote speaker Ron Ritchhart asked teachers, What do you hope your students will become as adults?  Underlying this question is the perhaps more basic question of why we are in school in the first place. Aside from, say, state law compelling you to be in school (!), what do you hope to get out of your high school education?  What impact beyond college admission do you hope your schooling will have on your future? What are the personal and intellectual characteristics (dispositions, Ritchhart would call them) that you most hope to possess? Where do you imagine you will you learn these dispositions? 

Look beyond some basic "content knowledge" (You might, for example, want to know how to calculate a tip at a restaurant or remember that a preposition is something you do NOT want to end a sentence with!). But what else can/should schools provide? To what extent should schools concern themselves with challenging your beliefs? Fostering independence? Problem solving? Practicing creativity? Teaching democratic values?  Learning to understand our emotional life?

These are huge topics, I realize. It might help for you to talk to parents and friends about these issues. Do they share your hopes for your education in school? In fact, you might also invite your parents to contribute their thoughts in addition to your own.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Perilous Leaks?

Daniel Ellsburg, the whistleblower behind the Pentagon Papers, recently remarked:
I'm sure there are many people in the Pentagon and CIA and the White House who are in my shoes right now. My advice to them is, don't do what I did. Don't reveal it six years from now. Don't wait ‘til the escalation has occurred.
Instead, they should do what I wish I had done in 1965, and that is tell the public what I believed right then, that my president was making a terrible mistake and that Congress should hold hearings, Congress should demand the truth and Congress should set him straight — WNYC's On the Media interview, 9/18/2009

This past week, after watching some exceptional presentations on the history of civil liberties during wartime, I listened to KCRW's political talk show, "Left, Right and Center", and the connections to our coursework were stunning, including the assassination of Diem, the Pentagon Papers, the Espionage Act of 1917, and more. Please listen to this short excerpt as you respond to the question below:

DEBATE: Robert Scheer, Tony Blankley, Matt Miller, Arianna Huffington


During these perilous times, when Washington Times writer Jeffrey Kuhner recently argued that Wikileaks founder "poses a clear and present danger to American national security", what, if anything, should be done about Julian Assange, and/or his powerful, yet constantly moving website?

Kuhner's answer, quite simply, is, "Kill him". Your own answer might help you frame your Perilous Times essay, as you decide on the extent of our rights during wartime.

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. — Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787.