Speak up?

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I am sensitive to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps it’s the four LONG years I spent in a rigourous collegiate journalism program. Perhaps it’s my hyper-sensitivity to the need to say what I want, when I need to say it. Regardless of the reason, I believe everyone has a right to freedom of speech, regardless of whether I agree with or am offended by what they have to say.*
Imagine my chagrin when I heard an uproar about an art installation at a high school in my county.  According to a news report (I’d love for more to exist, but it doesn’t seem to have been picked up by all of the local news outlets), students in an honors course “were given an assignment to create a display that shows what social justice means to them.”  The result was on display in the high school’s lobby for weeks before it started getting widespread attention. Early last week, the installation was removed.  In its place, students erected two coffins bearing epitaphs “Here lies our freedom of speech” and “Here lies our freedom of expression.”

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Art display that was removed from Oxon Hill High School. Image courtesy of MyFoxDC.

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Art display decrying censorship placed in same location as piece removed earlier this week. Image courtesy of Twitter user @simplysamonee.


I first saw mention of it on June 8, and ignored it.  It wasn’t until I heard that it was removed that I started paying more attention.  Prince George’s County Public Schools issued a statement explaining its removal: “While we encourage this type of evaluation, expression and analysis in our school district, we also strive to foster a civil and respectful culture.”

I’m extremely disappointed in the initial decision to remove the art.  Art is a form of free speech and expression. As a community and certainly a community of educators, it is our responsibility to teach our youth how to become engaged global citizens.  Part of being a global citizen is being aware of what’s happening around you and being engaged in the discourse.  The actions taken against this installation are in direct contrast with that goal. I believe the school’s removal sends a message to students that their voices don’t need to be heard. That their interpretation of what happens around and to them is not of value. That their experience doesn’t matter. It’s an old story and people are tired of hearing it.
I am more proud, however, of the students solidarity and response to the initial removal.  The assignment was about social justice, and unfortunately, they’re getting a tough lesson in that. But I think they are also rising to the occasion.  Their quick social media mobilization around the #donttakeitdown and #takeittotheboard show their understanding of their own rights to free speech and their willingness to engage in the political process to have their grievances addressed.  At an open meeting, the Prince George’s County Board of Education voted unanimously to issue a statement of solidarity and support for the students’ art.
There are so many layers to what’s wrong in this situation. Why are outsiders imposing their value judgments about the display?  Further, why are the school’s leaders allowing said bullying to occur?  This should be a lesson not only about what freedom of speech and expression truly mean, but also about the importance of integrity and standing by one’s convictions.  It is so easy to back down from speaking up for the right thing, no matter how unpopular. Does anyone remember what high school was like? We should be applauding these students for having the courage to address what they see as a social justice issue and think creatively to confront it.
Depending on where you fall on the subject, one might believe that it is open season on black lives, young and old. I’m firmly in the camp that there is something wrong with how police engage with people of color. This isn’t a new sentiment of mine, but it’s certainly been solidified given the high-profile incidents over the last year between white police officers and black men where officers killed them with impunity.  These students are embarking on adult lives and this is their reality.  Their community leaders, educators, and others should see this as an opportunity to tap into their youthful energy and get them engaged in positive social change.  Silencing them isn’t the way to do that.
 * Please note that my support of freedom of the speech does not equal freedom from consequences. There are inherent risks when letting your opinions fly into the universe when you’re a member of a society. Free speech is a calculated risk.

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