Passionate, patriotic protest in defense of civil disorder

Oct 2, 2014

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

Dozens of Colorado high school students decided a few days ago to demand a complete education about American history — and they had to walk out of class to make their point.

According to reports in The Denver Post and the Los Angeles Times, students at nine high schools in Denver suburbs have left classes at times “to protest what they see as the school board’s attempt to censor advanced history curriculum.“

Several newly elected school board members in Jefferson County pledged during election campaigns to revise school curricula. The students — along with parents and teachers, the reports said — were protesting a new board member’s proposal to form a review panel to promote “patriotic material, respect for authority, and the free-market system.” In turn, the truth-testers would avoid material about “civil disorder, social strife or disregard for the law.”

The proposal to tinker with the Advanced Placement (AP) class subject matter reportedly has been tabled for now. But how would such a content review play out?

OK, most of us would agree with no positive spins on fraud or murder and such. And who wouldn’t want students to learn about patriotism, America’s positive values and to grasp the economics of how our society operates?

But what to do with events such as the Boston Tea Party, clearly a shameless example of “civil disorder” and an obvious “disregard for the law”? And then there is the problem with how to deal with the history of abolitionists, who kept upsetting the prevalent respect for laws that kept slavery on the books between 1776 and 1865, causing a good deal of “social strife.” And of course, the Civil War itself encompassed a lot of incivility.

Purifying-panel participants also might find it necessary to rip out the pages in their history book about the men and women who campaigned for women’s suffrage — which included criticism of male-centric laws and disruptive demonstrations at the very gates of the White House. Clearly, the modern civil rights movement violates all three new no-nos proposed for the panel’s purview, having provoked disorder on a national scale, showed disregard for racist laws and challenged the existing segregationist social order.

Perhaps even the Tea Party vocal street marches against runaway government spending, and its angry confrontations with elected officials in town hall meetings a few summers ago, would not survive the panel’s censorious review.

In reality, this is a nation born by kicking over the existing social order: We called it the Revolutionary War. You remember that one — it’s in all the books ... so far.

Very public disputes replete with marches and protest signs, and the occasional disruption of the public peace, are basic tools in our ongoing endeavor “to form a more perfect union....” By the way, those last few words are from the U.S. Constitution, a text presumably not on the Jefferson County educational chopping block at this time.

A Fox News anchor, Gretchen Carlson, recently called the Colorado students “punks” and suggested they “get out” (of the country, not classes, presumably) if they object to an America “where we have a national anthem and an American flag.” In the Vietnam era, the same slam came out as “America. Love it or leave it.”

Both views miss the point that protesting in the marketplace of ideas ispatriotic, and a means over two centuries by which we keep perfecting our union. Learning about civil disobedience does not mean teaching that it is OK to commit crimes.

Government at any level ought not to be in the business of slicing out sections of our history that some find upsetting, improper or simply incompatible with their view — whether that’s a conservative or liberal take on U.S. history. We need both views, and an accurate account of history.

A sanitized, incomplete account in textbooks and classes denies students the opportunity to learn from our nation’s regrettable mistakes as well as its great accomplishments — and to aspire to do better than previous generations in both areas.

Too bad that it took students leaving classrooms to teach that lesson to adults who ought to know it already.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at