Graves: With free speech, all sides get equal time at the podium

The latest frantic example of such overblown exaggeration was the Sept. 29 letter from the leadership of the National School Boards Association to President Biden.

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One of the results of the ever-deepening abyss that is our current cultural divide is, ironically, the heights reached by the hyperbole both sides fling at each other. Every misstep is not so much mistaken or muddle-headed but, rather, treasonous and a threat to the very foundations of our republic.

While democracy can indeed be a fragile blossom, it cannot possibly be as weak as some on both sides of the cultural divide aver. If it were, free government would already be long in the rearview mirror. And, to be clear, it isn’t.
The latest frantic example of such overblown exaggeration was the Sept. 29 letter from the leadership of the National School Boards Association to President Biden. The correspondents wasted no time getting to the hysterical part.

“America’s public schools and its educational leaders are under an immediate threat.”

It seems the very walls of our schoolhouses are about to collapse if federal intervention does not come quickly.

There are so many things wrong with this letter, it is hard to address even the most egregious ones, within the limits of a newspaper column. But let’s start with this: America’s public schools are sound and to the extent they are under any sort of threat, it isn’t from members of the public speaking at school board meetings. Irresponsible pandemic-induced school closures, teacher shortages and unfavorable international achievement comparisons are much greater threats than constituents exercising their rights of expression and assembly. But I suppose these are harder to address than unhappy school board meetings.


(That should probably be enough said — the whole premise of the letter is just flat-out wrong — but when did I ever let enough said be enough said?)

From there, things get much more slippery. Garcia and Slaven go to great pains to assure the president that school boards “want to hear from their communities on important issues” and “must be at the forefront … of promotion of free speech” but then immediately launch into appeals for federal intervention which will squelch both. Free speech means listening both to what you want to hear and what you don’t, not calling in the feds when speech becomes unpleasant and rancorous.

On at least two occasions, the epistle contains references to the apparently self-evident position that public unhappiness at school board meetings affects “interstate commerce,” that widely overused legal basis for allowing federal involvement. Whether it is a lack of any obvious nexus between local schools and interstate commerce or the letter-writers’ odd sense that any American president would need this sort of legal advice is the more ridiculous, I’m not entirely certain. Are there times when federal intervention in schools is necessary? Sure. School desegregation is one obvious example. Kerfuffles at a smattering of school board meetings across the country is not.

They go on to assert that Critical Race Theory is not taught in public schools, which is largely true and entirely so in South Dakota, but again, free speech includes unfounded speech. They argue that they represent 90,000 school board members and 14,000 public school districts and that, therefore, their voice must be heeded. But they don’t. Mitchell is not a member of the NSBA and we are far from alone in this.

In regard to the tumult at school board meetings and schools, they use such terms as domestic terrorism and hate crimes and call for the possible involvements of the DOJ, Homeland Security and the FBI including its Counterterrorism Division, and reference the Patriot Act, and the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, among others. They mention reports of “extremist hate organizations,” thereby smearing anyone who raises their voice.

Do they make any good points? Yes, and the best is that some adults, through cursing, disruption and threats are setting a poor example for children. That is unfortunate but it hardly calls for swift action by national law enforcement.

What the situation does call for is what we already have, the very rare involvement of local police, when necessary, who best understand the nature of the local situation and who can be counted on to exercise restraint.

I admit I have not always enjoyed some of the discourse offered during board meetings over the past year. But I value First Amendment rights far more than I dislike the occasional unfair comment or unkind word.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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