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Free Speech Academic Freedom

"Our nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not allow laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. * * * The classroom is particularly a 'marketplace of ideas'. The Nation's future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] that through any kind of authoritative selection." Keyishian v Board of Regents, 385 US 589, 603 (1967) (cite omitted).

"The effort to pull ideology out of schools is evident in battles over history textbooks. * * * Most students read carefully censored books. The pursuit of 'neutrality' often leads to censorship. The American Textbook Publishers Institute has counseled publishers 'to avoid statements that might prove offensive to economic, religious, racial or social groups or any civil, fraternal, patriotic, or philanthropic societies in the whole United States'. Textbook manufacturers appear to have responded in some cases by deleting materials reflecting cultural differences that might have offended someone. Interest group pressures from diverse ideological camps have resulted in the deletion of materials that would undercut the perception of an American monopoly on decency, as variously defined. Business interests have occasionally intervened in textbook selection to remove materials considered hostile to the "American system." American policy is sanitized. Books rarely report questionable government action.

*** Perhaps the most striking feature of history textbooks is that they minimize the role of dissent in our history. Government decisions that appear decent or beneficial are often portrayed without any of the political controversy that created them. " Gottlieb, "In the Name of Patriotism: The Constitutionality of 'Bending' History in Public Secondary Schools." 62 N.Y.U.L.Rev. 497, 504 (1987).

Most states and districts have established careful processes to determine what information is provided to students. This process also frequently acts in such a way as to limit exposure to controversial viewpoints or subjects. When teachers use the Internet with their students, decisions about the appropriateness of certain materials are no longer under the control of school textbook publishers or school textbook selection committees. The teacher bears the primary responsibility for the selection of materials. It is quite easy to anticipate that the use of the Internet in the classroom will provide a vehicle to expose students to a wide range of perspectives that have not traditionally been accessible in the classroom.

Guidelines for Teachers

Most districts have policies on academic freedom. It should not be necessary for districts to redo these policies to address the Internet access. However, it may be prudent for districts to provide recommendations to teachers on the material they select through the Internet for class reading.

  • Teachers should select required or recommended material that is appropriate in light of the age of the students and that is the relevant to the course objectives.

  • Teachers should, to the best of their ability, preview the materials and sites they require or recommend students access to determine the appropriateness of the material contained on or accessed through the site.

  • Teachers should provide guidelines and lists of resources to assist their students in channeling their research activities effectively and properly when they are accessing the Internet independently. Lists of resources that are developed by educational groups are preferred.

  • Teachers should assist their students in developing the skills to ascertain the truthfulness of information, distinguish fact from opinion, and engage in discussions about controversial issues while demonstrating tolerance and respect for those who hold divergent views.

Clearly, the best way to avoid unnecessary controversy is to place a high priority on providing professional development opportunities for teachers to prepare them to handle this new learning environment. Districts that fail to provide for adequate teacher preparation will be the ones that face the greatest difficulties.

If we expect schools to be able to prepare students "for active participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society" we could ask for no better source of materials to accomplish this than those found on the Internet. Although there may be some unsettling terrain to negotiate in the future, access to the Internet will indeed provide our students, our future citizens, with "wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas" and, as a result, education will undergo profound change.

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