Freedom of expression must be protected

By Tibor Machan

A Colorado teacher recently compared President George W. Bush to Adolph Hitler in one of his classes, saying later this was only one side of a controversy he had been covering and he would get to the other side soon.

The president himself was asked about it when he addressed newspaper publishers the next day in Washington. And the president nearly got it right, but not quite.

Bush said, “I think people ought to be allowed to criticism me all they want, and they do.” He added, “There are some certain basic freedoms that we’ve got to protect, the freedom of people to express themselves.”

The president is of course basically right, except for some ill-chosen terms. It isn’t a matter of what we “ought to be allowed” to do, but what we have a right to do.

What is not evident in what Bush said is whether he understands the relationship between the right of free speech or expression and the nature of public schools. The importance of this is illustrated well by the fact that Republicans in Colorado went to work on a bill, after this incident, that would make it possible to fire teachers who do not present both sides of a controversy.

In other words, when it comes to government-administered realms of our society, the right of freedom of expression runs smack into conflict with the democratic principle that the voters, through their elected and appointed officials, are authorized to manage such realms.

Just as the Federal Communications Commission has the legal authority to banish Howard Stern from broadcast radio and may dictate to TV and radio stations various policies they must follow (because they operate on the public airwaves), so administrators of public schools have the authority to set policy.

Unless teachers have a contract with these administrators that spells out a contractual (but not basic) right to say what they choose in the course of teaching a course, they have to abide by school policy. And because school policy is subject to the political process, it may or may not grant the privilege to teachers to say what they choose to say in their classrooms.

This is especially so in primary and secondary public schools, where there isn’t a strong tradition of academic freedom, as opposed to the usually observed college and university policy of not interfering with how professors teach their courses, especially once they have tenure. Even this is not without some exceptions. I cannot conduct my business ethics classes by just telling jokes or discussing global warming or abortion. I must keep to the announced topic.

In private schools, of course, all kinds of different arrangements and agreements can be hatched as far as what’s in and what’s out in various courses being taught. But that’s not so in public schools, mainly because the public realm is governed by various administrative rules, some of them going all the way up to the Constitution. Yes, this would make it appear that the First Amendment reins supreme at public schools, but clearly that’s not so — the democratic processes can trump it, just as it can trump whether some Nazis or KKK group can use a public park to advocate their vile creed.

Which all goes to reinforce the point that a prerequisite of what president Bush stated, namely, “There are some certain basic freedoms that we’ve got to protect, the freedom of people to express themselves,” is the protection of private property rights.

Only if those rights are firmly protected and maintained will free expression also gain firm protection. For if a speaker — teacher, pundit, preacher, or the like — is expressing himself or herself on public property, the basic freedoms the president was talking about will often have to yield to the will of the (voting) people!

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at
Machan@chapman.edu