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Bruce Kaskubar: Rochester Public Schools cancels free speech

Classifying some topics as "government speech" excludes the opportunity to express opposing points of view. How American is that?

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Bruce Kaskubar Monday, June 21, 2021, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
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“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

― George Washington

At its April 27 meeting, the Rochester Public School Board thought they skirted the First Amendment as part of passing a resolution . The crux of the resolution is:

We adopt the following messages of inclusion as official government speech:

  • “Black Lives Matter.”
  • “Brown Lives Matter.”
  • “Indigenous Lives Matter.”
  • “All Are Welcome Here.”
  • “Stop Asian Hate.”
  • [the gay pride flag]

Unanimously, it passed.
They didn’t simply adopt a message. They labeled it as government speech. Why? To block free speech. Why might we think that? Because they said so.

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Superintendent Michael Muñoz introduced the discussion by mentioning what he took to be a problem to be solved: Staff members who wanted to express support for such as Black Lives Matter didn’t want to be taken to task for it.

Muñoz pointed out that, “We had the issue that when you allow individual employees to express their personal views on a particular topic during their work hours, it must be done in a way that is seen as impartial. ... (T)he district cannot allow one type of message and prohibit another type of message simply because it expresses a different point of view.”

So, they had an issue with personal expression of some ideas and a problem of being balanced.

The First Amendment codifies our right to speak our minds but not to be free of repercussions for what we say. That isn’t good enough for the district. It wanted something “better” for itself and its staff.

During the board’s discussion, they were explicit about finding a way around the First Amendment in order to disallow opinions different than the ones they intended to prefer.

The district’s attorney, John Edison, joined the meeting to wonder, “how to support certain messages … while also being mindful of the parameters of what is ... permitted under the First Amendment” and to note that, “government speech ... is different … these are the messages that we're communicating as the school district and by doing that, we're not creating a forum for other types of speech to also enter the forum.”

So, government speech was seen as a hammer to allow the district and its staff their opinions, protected from other opinions whether of students, parents, staff, or the rest of us. And who’s ever heard of government speech?

It doesn’t even matter what the resolution was about: The fact they were trying to find a way around the First Amendment in order to reserve authority for their own preferred speech is unconstitutional. Literally un-American.

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About the resolution, Board Chair Jean Marvin said , “(I)t is not about telling students what to think or what they can and cannot say.”

But that was exactly part of their discussion leading up to their vote.

According to a staff member who contacted me, we have classrooms with a gay pride flag and no American flag. That doesn’t make our students think? Not mentioning the lives of our largest student population doesn’t make our students think? Really?

That we desire and should expect a thoroughly safe, inclusive, and successful environment for all our students should be a no-brainer. To explicitly say we want it for specific groups is pathetic. To do it in a way that attempts to avoid the First Amendment is outrageous.

In its rush to woke-ism, Rochester Public Schools has embarrassed itself and damaged the community. Its anti-First Amendment gambit should not become a habit nor stand the test of time.

Bruce Kaskubar, of Rochester, is a former chairman of the Olmsted County Republican Party. His opinions are his own.

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