Citizens for a Totalitarian State?

Okay, I’m officially worried.

I’m currently in Fairfax, Virginia, on the (really beautiful) campus of George Mason University; I’m here as one of the 71 judges of the national “We the People” finals. For those who don’t know anything about “We the People,” it is probably the single most effective civics curriculum being used in the U.S. Unfortunately, its use is entirely voluntary–teachers can choose to adopt it for junior and senior government classes, but it is entirely up to them.

Students in WTP classes study the history and philosophy of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. When they c0mplete the semester, most know a great deal more about the nation’s founding documents than most adults. The conclusion of the course–which was an outgrowth of Warren Burger’s Bicentennial Commission–is a competition modeled upon congressional hearings. Each class is divided into six teams, each assigned to one of the six units in the textbook. The teams are grilled by three-judge “panels” to ascertain their mastery of the subject-matter, first in competitions held in each congressional district, and then at the state level. The state winner goes to the national finals.

I am a member of one of those three-judge panels, and my team’s assignment was Unit 5–the Bill of Rights. Our assignment was focused upon the First Amendment, and our questions were intended to determine what the students knew about the philosophy and jurisprudence of Free Speech. We saw 14 teams yesterday, and we will see another 14 today.

The good news is that all of the students on all of the teams displayed impressive knowledge of the origins and jurisprudence of free speech. They could quote the Founders, they could recite the case law, identify the jurists, and report the reasoning of each case.

The bad news is that students on most of the teams we reviewed accepted the logic of those cases without question. If the Court said that suppression of expression was acceptable in a particular situation, then it was. The case of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, for example, held that high school newspapers can be censored by school administrators. The decision has been heavily criticized in the 25 years since it was handed down, and in some states, legislatively overruled. And yet many of the students, when asked, dutifully parroted the holding and defended its logic by arguing that students “need to be protected from ‘inappropriate’ information.” They similarly had no problem with the decision in Buckley v. Valeo that money equals speech, and expressed no qualms that Citizens United might result in giving some speakers the ability to drown out the speech of those with fewer dollars to spend.

When questioned about efforts to restrict speech during wartime, several students defended the right of government to impose censorship “for public safety.” And in at least two cases, they seemed willing to give in to the “heckler’s veto”–to agree that government could suppress public speeches if those speeches had potential to create public disturbances.

Students were generally unwilling to disagree with or criticize past Court decisions, even those that have subsequently been narrowed or abandoned. If I had to characterize their approach, I would call it docile or submissive. If there’s a law, these kids will obey it, no matter how unreasonable it may be. We didn’t see many  who are likely to protest, or engage in civil disobedience, and even in this era of anti-government sentiment, we saw a troubling number who seemed willing to believe that government always knows best.

I hasten to say that there were many exceptions, and that we only saw half of the competing teams. Three or four of those teams (including one from Indiana) were outstanding–thoughtful, analytic and articulate. And I understand that we’ll see some of the stronger teams today. But most of the competitors are here because they won a state-level contest, and I can’t help wondering about the prevalence among them of a meek and unquestioning acceptance of authority.

They’re teenagers, for heaven’s sake! If they aren’t going to question authority now, how docile will they be when they have children and a mortgage?


  1. Sheila; this must be an interesting experience; looking into the thought processes of today’s intelligent teenage generation. My personal view of the Amendments is that they are very basic, open to interpretation and a good loophole attorney can talk him/herself into a winning case. Since 2008 I have kept a small copy of The Constitution on my coffee table to go to the source to check on never-ending political arguments. It has been an education for me but at the same time leaves me confused as to the end results of many decisions. I have the advantage/disadvantage of 76 years seeing, hearing and pondering; I wonder who has the advantage to best decide – youth or years of exeriences of life. Wow; you must be enjoying this enlightening experiencce and the opportunity to be learning new views yourself.

  2. Thanks for a good read. Two things come to mind. You recently wrote regarding the importance of teaching HOW to think over teaching WHAT to think. This may be an example. Also, perhaps the students you see at the competition are more a reflection of the JUDGES at the states who decided which young people best represented their own thought process. Just Sayin’. Enjoy your trip.
    Perhaps the new members of Congress could participate in such a process and learn how a bill becomes a law. That old TV cartoon might be helpful for some 😉

  3. When I would teach my students about the First Amendment Free Speech Clause, I emphasized various principles. First that it applies to government trying to restrict speech. That it protects political speech the most. That it covers not just verbal speech but symbolic speech. That government can provide reasonable time, place and manner restrictions but those restrictions can’t be based on the content of the message.

    I would emphasize that when they get a fact based just apply the principles. No matter how many times I told them that , I’d give them an example, like the Ku Klux Klan holding a public raly, and they would say government has the right to ban it because it’s “hate speech.” They would always concentrate on how they “feel” about the speech laid out in the facts and if they didn’t like speech, they just assumed it could be restricted by government. It’s not just a lack of knowledge about how the First Amendment, I think it’s a flaw in how they are taught to think at a younger age. They are taught to think with their hearts (how they feel) rather than their brains.

  4. Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier is a lousy case to cite in favor of free speech, because only certain students were allowed to publish articles in the paper – only the students who worked on the paper.

    School papers aren’t open to most students, and that’s a much bigger deal that never gets mentioned.

    Similarly, only the students approved by school staff can be cheerleaders. Even if a student shows up to practice and games, and can do the cheers, they still can’t be a cheerleader unless approved. The result is institutionalized discrimination against unattractive students.

  5. I don’t know whether it’s just me or if perhaps everyone else experiencing issues
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  6. Sheila’s post not running off the screen but your listed address runs into your message. Hope that helps.

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