The Shawano School District of Wisconsin Teaches Bad Citizenship

"Liberty," said Learned Hand, "lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it."

Learned Hand was quite right — if people don't support basic legal norms like freedom of expression and due process of law, no legal systems will be sufficient to enforce those norms. They will wither. But how is the appetite for liberty born in our hearts? Some choose to believe that it is an inherent aspiration of humanity. I don't think that history, ancient or recent, supports that. Rather, I think that liberty is a cultural value, carefully cultivated by example and education. Good American citizenship is characterized by fidelity to shared taught values, and a willingness to support them and teach them to others.

Like any value, liberty can also be suppressed. People — especially young people — can be taught to scorn it.

Right now, the Shawano School District is Wisconsin is teaching students to scorn free expression. The Shawano School District, through its leaders, is teaching bad American citizenship.

Shawano High School has a student paper called the Hawk's Post. The Hawk's Post decided to run opinion columns, pro and con, on the subject of adoption by gays. Shawano High student Brandon Wegner wrote the column in opposition. The column — which you can see at Jack Marshal's post at Ethics Alarms — is nothing to be proud of. It's execrably written, it misquotes Jesus Christ, and it meanders like a drunkard. It also opens with a reference to Leviticus 20:13, suggesting that the Biblical penalty for homosexuality is death. It's a detestable column, from a journalistic perspective, from the perspective of this adoptive parent, and from the perspective of people like me who are very pleased that generational replacement is inexorably making people with such views rarer and rarer. The column is, in fact, so awful that I have a sneaking suspicion that it is a troll job. It is also, however, an archetypical example of a student opinion piece on a controversial topic.

The column apparently ran without incident until a local man named Nick Uttech — who is raising for kids with his partner — found out about it and complained to the school district. District officials listened to him respectfully, told him that the view in the column did not reflect the view of the district, and explained the district's stated values:

Shawano does have a policy on “Teaching about Controversial Issues,” which states, “differences in opinion are a continuing and important part of life in a democratic society.” The policy, according to the website, was approved in January 1999.

“It is, therefore, a responsibility of the school to help young people develop the skills of rational thought that are needed for an objective approach to a study of issues on which people differ,” according to the policy.

No, wait. Shawano School District didn't do that. Instead, the Shawano School District, through Superintendent Todd Carlson, went into full retreat from those principles:

The Shawano School District would like to apologize for a recent article printed in the Hawks Post newspaper. Proper judgment that reflects school district policies needs to be exercised with articles printed in our school newspaper. Offensive articles cultivating a negative environment of disrespect are not appropriate or condoned by the Shawano School District. We sincerely apologize to anyone we may have offended and are taking steps to prevent items of this nature from happening in the future.

According to one source, school officials asserted that the column constituted "bullying." Moreover, Liberty Counsel — which is now representing Brandon Wegner — claims (though the district apparently denies it) that Shawano officials made other troubling statements to Wegner in the course of confronting him about the column:

After Brandon wrote this article he was pulled into hours of meetings with school administrators and staff, without his parents’ knowledge. This caused him to miss exam preparation classes and at least one exam.

Brandon was hauled before the superintendent on charges that he had violated the school’s bullying policy. Superintendent Todd Carlson told him that the column “went against the bullying policy,” and asked him if he “regretted” writing it. When Mr. Wegner stated that he did not regret writing it, and that he stood behind his beliefs, Superintendent Carlson told him that he “had got to be one of the most ignorant kids to try to argue with him about this topic,” that “we have the power to suspend you if we want to” and that the column had “personally offended me, so I know you offended other people!”

Even leaving those alleged comments aside, the Shawano School District's approach to the controversy has taught terrible lessons of bad citizenship to its students. First, as Eugene Volokh points out, this is an unusually broad and unprincipled use of the term "bullying." If "bullying" means "expressing viewpoints that I find hurtful of offensive," then it becomes an utterly open-ended justification for censorship. Suicides of bullied young people are unspeakably tragic; they can only become more tragic if we cynically and crassly misappropriate them to justify suppressing speech we don't like in an orgy of ""think of the children!" self-justification.

Second, the district's actions seek to make students into moral cripples and bad citizens. The message is clear: citizens are entitled to look to the government to suppress messages that they don't like. Thus, rather than cultivating Learned Hand's appetite for liberty in the hearts of children, the district cultivates appetite for and tolerance of government control. What do you think Shawano School District's students will learn to respect — the words in Shawano's pro-speech policy, or the words in its ignominious retreat from that policy? Moreover, the district's actions teaches children that they have no responsibility in the marketplace of ideas other than reporting offensive speech to the government and shutting up. In fact, the foundation of our approach to free expression is the notion that the best response to ugly speech is more speech. Students who view gays as full and equal human beings — an increasingly large percentage, I'm happy to say — ought to engage in more speech in the student paper, telling Brandon Wegner that they find his views loathsome and reject them. Or they should say so in person — speech has social consequences, and ought to. If Brandon Wegner is widely shunned and scorned for his viewpoint, I suspect that the Liberty Counsel will see it as an injustice, but I won't — I'll see it as classic more speech response to detestable speech. We want students to feel free to respond to Brandon Wegner's speech in non-violent verbal and written ways, because we want them to grow up to respond to contrary viewpoints rather than run to the government and ask that they be suppressed. If we don't teach them that value, how supportive do you suppose they will be of free speech when they grow to adults?

I am sympathetic to the viewpoint that Brandon Wegner's column was vile and hurtful to anyone who is gay, or has gay loved ones or friends. But I am not sympathetic to the view that the interests of traditionally disparaged groups — like gays — are well-served by censorship. Exceptions to norms of freedom of expression, once forged, have always been imposed disproportionately against people with less power. Only a damned fool expects otherwise.

Hat tip to the Student Press Law Center.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Carolynp says

    Excellent article, I can only wish that more people agreed with you. I also think that we need a hat tip for any kid who writes an op-ed. I appreciate the initiative that takes as I haven't met too many adults who write them.

  2. Xenocles says

    Actually, I think they apply their anti-bullying policy rather narrowly. Standing a minor child up alone in a star chamber for hours on end while the most powerful adults in his local environment berate him about his beliefs sure seems like bullying.

  3. says

    It seems to me the goal isn't to have them value free speech. Because if we teach them to do that, god knows what sort of trouble they may get into as adults. Can you imagine them actually questioning the actions of a state official? Or speaking out against an institution? How horrible!

    Note, please, that I do not see this as some sort of vast conspiracy driven by some sort of shadowy cabal/privileged elite/etc. It is partly a side effect of rank stupidity at all levels of our society and government. It is partly a side effect of people who seem incapable of dealing with problems beyond casting Summon Bureaucrat II. It just so happens that it will be of benefit to the type of person who seeks to hold office and not be held accountable for what is done when in office. E.g. your typical congressperson.

    The education reforms portion of the state of the union last night was pretty funny because of stuff like this. Setting aside the "a good teacher is worth 250k lifetime income!" portion (where the hell did that come from?), it doesn't matter what you do to train/retain teachers when the education system seems to produce the scenario right here more often than not. It's appalling.

  4. says

    I was just wondering the other day whether Jack Marshall was still trying to create an online persona as an ethics guru, except I couldn't remember his name. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. C. S. P. Schofield says

    Was there ever a time when school teachers and administrators, taken together, weren't a collection of third-raters with the moral stature of something you might find growing on damp bread? I grant the occasional shining exception, but my experience and reading has been that they average out at about the level where H. L. Mencken placed them, which as I recall was about a half step above Sunday School Superintendents.

    Yes, they should be better. But the problem with saying that we should get the Best and Brightest to teach our children is that the Best and Brightest frequently have something else they'd rather do. Also, they tend to have minimal patience with teenaged posturing, and might end up hitting one of more little scholars with a chair.

  6. says

    And I was still wondering whether Scott Greenfield was still stalking me after all this time. It's good to know that some people other than my wife will hold a grudge forever. That comp to one of my ethics seminars is still waiting for you, Scott!

  7. Laura K says

    It's not just bad citizenship training it's an education-theory that has been stomped on by demented, rabid cappybaras!

    Who in their right mind does not see that if Teenager A is indeed an ignorant, illiterate bully that the FASTEST way to ingraine HIS bullying is to bully HIM???? Not to mention the (snort) Highly Effective method of telling a Teen he's wrong and bad and trying to force him in a different direction…

    The kids of this town are in the hands of Stark. Raving. Morons.

    The school officials and principal's Master of Education programs have even more to answer for than usual.

  8. Nicholas Bretagna II says

    The letter I sent to the school district:
    (emphasis mine):

    "Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty. To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."

    — SCotUS Justice Louis Brandeis —

    By all indications, this student IS an IDIOT and a fool.
    But you people are BIGGER fools. And far, far more complete idiots.

    I hope you get your asses sued off, your pocketbooks reamed, and that your elected members get removed from office on the next election cycle for handling this so ridiculously badly.

    It's in a clear and direct violation of your own official position on such matters (section 381,"TEACHING ABOUT CONTROVERSIAL ISSUES"), to wit:
    Rational discussion of controversial issues should be an important part of the school program.
    YOUR solution? "STFU, kid!" That's not rational discussion, you hypocritical JERKOFFS.

    The proper solution would have been to actually use it as an educational opportunity.

    Gosh! A school… emphasizing an educational opportunity?!!? Wow, what a CONCEPT!!

    To actually use reasoning, facts, and rhetorical techniques to make the case why this student is not just wrong, but very wrong.

    Hypocritical, incompetent morons. And then people wonder why Wisconsin public schools suck so bad.

  9. Nicholas Bretagna II says

    BTW, the stated policies mentioned above are woefully clueless (emphasis mine):

    Rational discussion of controversial issues should be an important part of the school program. The teacher should help students identify relevant information, learn the techniques of critical analysis, make independent judgments, and be prepared to present and support them. The teacher should also help students become sensitive to the continuing need to objectively examine issues in light of new information and changing conditions in society.

    In no situation will a student be required to read printed material, see or hear other audio-visual material, or listen to a speaker relative to beliefs, issues or ideas that are contrary to the moral convictions of the student and/or his/her parent(s) or guardian. These objections are to be expressed in writing and provided to the teacher.

    The two emphasized portions are clearly and directly at odds with one another. You can't possibly have a rational discussion about a controversial issue if the opposition can say "STFU, I'm not listening!"

    It's amazing the woeful incompetence of the libtard mind at critical thought processes.

  10. A leap at the wheel says

    Was there ever a time when school teachers and administrators, taken together, weren't a collection of third-raters with the moral stature of something you might find growing on damp bread?

    Yes, actually.

    Before women's lib, 'high status women,' as the econ lit calls them, went to the best colleges possible for them at the time – woman's schools. There, they trained for the highest status jobs available to them – teachers and nurses, primarily.

    After gender integration of secondary education and the marketplace, the high status women of the next generations went into the same fields as high status men – management, law, finance and doctoring (though noticeably absent is science and engineering…) Since then, the teaching courses at college can only attract the dregs of both genders.

    Note, I'm not making a value judgement here, just laying out what I understand to be the factual history. I'm generally pro-gender equality.

  11. Nicholas Bretagna II says

    Was there ever a time when school teachers and administrators, taken together, weren't a collection of third-raters with the moral stature of something you might find growing on damp bread?

    Yes, actually.

    No, actually. The following is attributed to Mark Twain, suggesting that it's been around for almost as long as Mann's idiotic schooling method:

    First got made idiots. This was for practice.
    Then he made School Boards.

  12. Nicholas Bretagna II says

    "A leap", your mistake is not realizing that admin is at least a major, if not the entire, problem with schools. This includes the forms of admin that are teachers' unions.