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Rightwing Radio Show Postpones Madison Teach-In
Posted December 10, 2002 thepeoplesvoice.org

McCarthyism Watch "We will be regularly updating the site with examples of the New McCarthyism that is sweeping the country." The Progressive http://www.progressive.org/webex/wxmc120602.html

I've been doing these McCarthyism Watch updates for just about a year, and now here's one where I have a cameo. I and two other peace activists were supposed to address an anti-Iraq War teach-in at Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin, on December 3. About twenty students and a faculty adviser had planned the teach-in over the course of a month. They'd made up posters and leaflets and were all set to go with the teach-in. But the day before it was supposed to happen, a student involved with the Young Republicans went on a local rightwing radio program and complained that the teach-in was unbalanced. He and the host, Chris Kroc, drummed up enough negative calls and e-mails to the school administration-some referring to the school district as "subversive and anti-American," according to the Capital Times-that within a matter of hours, the school superintendent, Art Rainwater, postponed the teach-in.

For cover, Rainwater dusted off an old policy that reads: "In the study of controversial issues, provision is made in the Madison Metropolitan School District for the pupil to study under competent instruction in an atmosphere as free as possible from bias and prejudice." The policy further states that teacher should "develop a classroom atmosphere in which pupils feel free to express opinions and to challenge ideas," and the teacher should "choose suitable instructional materials presenting data on varying points of view on issues being discussed." Rainwater said the organizers of the teach-in should try to find representatives of the other side before the teach-in could be held. (The principal of the school, Pam Nash, had previously offered the Young Republicans the opportunity to hold their own teach-in.)

Students have held teach-ins in Madison's public schools for more than three decades without having the superintendent of schools micromanage the speakers' roster. And Rainwater's cited policy appears to apply to classroom instruction, not assemblies, which are voluntary, as the teach-in was to be. (It was scheduled to be held during the last two classes of the day.)

"If that rule had been hanging on my classroom wall, I would not have interpreted it as saying we don't have the right to have that teach-in," says social studies teacher Pat Calchina, who was advising the student group. "It was a weak excuse to quiet the rightwing. And I'm just so enraged, frustrated, and disappointed with administrators who don't have the backbone to stand up to the them."

Calchina points out that the invoked policy seems to contradict the "Student Bill of Rights" for the district. Under a section entitled "Freedom of Political Activity," it says: "Students shall have the privilege to plan and carry out voluntary forums, assemblies, seminars, and school programs of a political nature so long as they do not substantially disrupt or pose a clear and present danger to school operations."

Bill Keys, president of the school board, also disagrees with Rainwater's decision. "It was unfortunate to be bowing to media pressure," he says. The students who were organizing the teach-in were astonished at the decision. "My first reaction was shock that he could do something that was so blatantly against our student rights," says Rachel Blumenfeld, a sophomore with the student group Peace Action Changing Tomorrow (PACT). "And then of course I was extremely disappointed. We were working so hard. When you put your passion and your lifeblood into something and then see it not happen, that's just really traumatic for me."

Blumenfeld says the rule that Superintendent Rainwater invoked "was extremely arbitrary. It's never been used before." The experience of working on the teach-in has been a difficult one for her. "I've been getting exceedingly negative feedback from day one," she says. "I've been called a stoner, a stupid stoner hippie. I've gotten a lot of 'I'm anti-American' stuff, though if anything I'm more of a patriot for trying to encourage discussion, which is what democracy is about. But this has brought out an amazing amount of anger in people. They've defaced my posters, and some were even found in the urinals."

Blumenfeld says that hostile students, and at least one teacher, were tearing down the posters that PACT had put up. The school administration had approved the posters, and the stamp of approval was visible on them, she adds. The school is allowing the group to hold a teach-in on December 13 so long as it meets the district's requirement of balance. "We are going to do a both-sided teach-in," she says. "And we may have to organize their side for them if they don't get it together."

For my part, I was almost amused at first to be embroiled in the very kind of censorship I've been reporting on for months now. But the more I thought about it, the more miffed I became that I was not allowed to participate in this teach-in as scheduled. But much more than my own pique, I care about what lessons this incident is teaching our high school students. Is it teaching them that their free speech rights are inviolate, or that they can be taken away at a moment's notice by the whim of a person in authority? Is it teaching them to stand up to bullies in the media and in their midst, or to be intimidated into silence? Is it teaching them to get involved in important political issues facing the country and the world, or that it's just too much trouble anyway so why bother?

When holding a teach-in out here in liberal old Madison, Wisconsin, becomes verboten, you know that the chilly winds of McCarthyism are picking up speed.

-- Matthew Rothschild

Copyright 2002 All rights reserved by Matthew Rothschild



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