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Friends of Free Speech, a Newspaper Needs You

July 28, 2002|PAUL PFLUEGER | Paul Pflueger is a Laguna Beach resident who teaches at a local community college.

I believe that effective teaching should communicate certain ideas: It matters what a student thinks, students should question orthodox views, though not necessarily reject them, and students should actively try to bring about change.

These concepts are the cornerstone of a viable democracy. When they're ignored, we shouldn't be surprised by low voter turnout and the inertia that results in special-interest groups controlling the political agenda.

During 25 years of teaching in public schools, I have found these concepts too often are discouraged. And, when these positive educational concepts are embraced, teachers are bound to offend or embarrass some colleagues and administrators.

The Times' June 22 article on Garden Grove teacher Janet Ewell ("Removed School Paper Advisor Says Opinion Pieces Did Her In") appears to be an example of a distressingly familiar pattern. Ewell was removed from her journalism class because her principal, embarrassed by students' criticisms in the student newspaper, wanted to silence their voices. Apparently, rather than addressing student complaints about bathrooms, school lunches and teacher availability, he removed the advisor.

My comments may be of value because of my experience under similar circumstances. I have refused to arbitrarily inflate grades or "dumb down" the curriculum. I have been openly critical of administration policies, so the superintendent several years ago tried to fire me from my teaching position.

The student newspaper that Ewell advised had criticized some teachers for not being available before and after school for students who needed extra help. The newspaper complained about hairs and flies found in cafeteria food and criticized administrators for the small number of functioning bathrooms.

Student newspapers are supposed to reflect student reporting on topics and events of their choosing, and to contain editorials that reflect their views on issues of significance. There are obvious reporting and editorializing limits that cannot be crossed, but Ewell's class seems to have crossed none of them.

To quote Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas: "First Amendment rights

A free press guarantees that someone's feelings may get hurt. If readers object to the students' opinions, they can make their case in letters to the editor. I understand that the high school paper printed six responses from teachers. Readers then can draw their conclusions based on evidence and their own experiences.

People must also remember that history demonstrates hurt feelings often lead to productive and important changes. The credibility of those who want to censor and silence critics is always suspect. What do they fear?

I know that some superintendents and trustees don't like their phone numbers and addresses made available. Criticism might prove to be embarrassing, but it should be considered an honor to hear from those who care enough to get involved.

I hope that Ewell receives a fair hearing and that her union provides adequate advice and assistance. Sadly, I wouldn't bet on either.

The 1st Amendment issues raised by Ewell's school newspaper should form the basis for a debate. These are real and important issues. However, district officials and the principal could simply state that they control teaching assignments, and that it was time for a change in the journalism class.

My experiences with a teachers union make me skeptical about Ewell getting adequate help. Sometimes union representatives are more like district lap dogs than teacher advocates. The school district that tried to fire me subsequently offered me another job in the district, but I instead chose early retirement and am teaching at a community college.

I urge Ewell's students, their parents and the community to get involved in this case. Nothing less than the 1st Amendment and a quality education are at stake.

Recall Voltaire's statement: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Maybe some of the people running our schools never learned about democratic concepts. If not, let's remind them.

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