Let students voice their opinions — all of them

If you have permission to do something, does it really qualify as civil disobedience?

That’s the question which needs to be asked after Wednesday’s “National School Walkout” concerning gun violence. It doesn’t belittle the cause; after all, both the Tea Party rallies in 2010 and the Women’s March in 2017 were completely appropriate exercises of First Amendment rights. Whether someone agrees with them are not, their points were legitimate and lawfully made.

However, when school districts are encouraging and permitting the protests without penalty, we start treading on dangerous ground. Public schools are public institutions, and students are compelled — by force of law — to attend. Part of that attendance means complying with the rules imposed by the school board and administration, including going to class.

Students make their way toward the state capitol during a walkout to protest gun violence on Wednesday in Madison, Wisconsin, one month after the deadly shooting inside a high school in Parkland, Florida. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Yet, by permitting students to participate in the “National School Walkout,” administrators are effectively picking and choosing which political viewpoints are acceptable. That’s a dangerous road. If students decide tomorrow to stage a walkout to protest the death penalty, will that be acceptable? What if, next week, a group of Christian students choose to protest abortion policies by leaving class?

All of these causes are life-and-death, and all are legitimate grounds for political demonstration and disagreement. But government employees should not choose which ones to bless and which to punish.

That is one of the biggest challenges of the “National School Walkout.” Professional educators — our teachers and administrators — are four times more likely to be registered Democrats than Republicans. Those calling for new firearms laws are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. So it leaves open questions of bias.

If a student does not necessarily agree with the popular political opinion at her school but knows her teacher does, does she feel pressure to participate in political activity? If all her peers walk out in favor of a new “assault weapon” ban, will she be able to stay behind without penalty? Or will that teacher — even subconsciously — take note?And even if the educator is able to maintain their objectivity, how can the student ever be sure?

Part of the reason we have public schools is to create educated adult citizens capable of participating in self governance. In fact, the Maine Constitution explicitly states that the Legislature is required to require towns to provide schools, as “general diffusion of the advantages of education being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people.” What few too many people know is that Thomas Jefferson was the author of those powerful words.

Jefferson, in his first draft of the Virginia Constitution, also offered language about the private ownership of firearms. Specifically, he wrote “no freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms.“ A later draft added “within his own lands or tenements.”  He supported education and arms for the same reason: “the preservation of rights and liberties.”

Without an armed free people, Jefferson and the other founders feared that their states — and later fledgling nation — would buckle under a superior foreign force. However, without an educated citizenry, the nation may fail due to ignorance.

That brings us back to the “National School Walkout.” While there are good-faith arguments put forward for certain pieces of new legislation, those arguments must be assessed on their own merits. The debate is often confused; “semi-automatic” rifles are often demonized under a misconception that they are “machine guns.”

Our schools should seek to educate students on the meaning of the words they use to engage in political discourse. They should challenge them to defend their viewpoints. And those entrusted with educating them should steadfastly adhere to an ethic of objectivity.

So let students voice their political concerns. If they believe a walkout is appropriate — in protest of gun violence or any other cause — let them do so. But then hold them accountable for their choices.

Otherwise, our public employees are deciding which viewpoints are worthy and which are wicked. And that’s a wicked bad idea.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.