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OUR VIEW: Hardened views against honor song violate spirit of 1st Amendment

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We've never understood why the Chamberlain School Board won't allow the school district's American Indian students to have an honor song at graduation.

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It seems like such a small thing to ask, and something that would only extend by a few minutes a ceremony that attendees fully expect to be lengthy.

By refusing to budge on the issue these past couple of years, board members have turned a simple request into a divisive controversy.

All along, we've failed to see how an honor song could be harmful in any way. In fact, with one-third of Chamberlain's student body being Indian, an honor song for those students at graduation seems not only appropriate but perhaps even necessary. And yet the resistance continues and even hardens.

Most recently, we reported that the Chamberlain School Board and its superintendent are not allowing members of the public to place an honor song discussion on the school board agenda. The board also revised its agenda policy to make it more difficult for the public to get a spot on it.

All this over a request to have a few minutes at a graduation ceremony to perform a song?

We know Chamberlain is full of good people with good intentions. But the longer this fight goes on and the more entrenched the school officials get, the worse it looks.

The latest moves to squelch public debate are particularly unsavory. The First Amendment to our national Constitution includes the right of Americans to petition their government for a redress of grievances. That right doesn't only cover the circulation of printed petitions. It's a right that's been broadly interpreted as applicable to all levels of government and covering activities such as communicating with elected officials and organized lobbying. "In modern America," says the First Amendment Center, "petitioning embraces a range of expressive activities designed to influence public officials through legal, nonviolent means."

We're not constitutional scholars and can't say whether anyone's rights are being violated in Chamberlain. It seems clear to us, though, that at least the spirit of the First Amendment is under attack when local government leaders go out of their way to shut down public discourse on a matter of public concern.

If somebody can provide us with a logical explanation for why Chamberlain's school officials are so deeply opposed to the honor song request, we would welcome it. Based on what we know so far, we can't figure out why a group of reasonable people could be so staunchly opposed to something so benign as a request to sing a song.

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