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Teaching Democratic Citizenship And Freedom Of Political Expression

As we prepare for our national elections, it is well worth remembering that the highest office in American democracy is not the President, but the citizen. In a democracy, “we the people” – the body of citizens – must rule. Elected officials, including our President, are only our representatives; they exercise the powers we grant to them.

The citizen bears not only rights, but responsibilities. Our vote and our participation in free and fair elections that choose our representatives is not simply the greatest power and right of the citizenry, won by Americans who struggled courageously throughout our history to extend the franchise to all, regardless of class, sex and race. Just as importantly, it is our greatest civic responsibility. The strength and resilience, the purpose and ends, of democracy rests upon the active participation of the citizenry in elections: to the extent that government does not have a clear mandate of the citizenry due to widespread abstention from the electoral process, its authority is greatly diminished. That is the import of Thomas Jefferson’s and John Locke’s famous notion that legitimate government is based on the consent of the governed.

Teachers have a unique and special responsibility in a democracy: we are citizens in our own right, and we are the educators of the next generation of citizens. Properly understood, these two roles are inextricably linked, one to the other. One does not educate youth into democratic citizenship by lecture and dictate. Rather, it is essential that we teachers model good citizenship and that our classrooms embody the fundamental values of free expression, fairness and thoughtful deliberation that define all democratic decision-making, including free elections. Students learn how to be good citizens by actual practicing the skills of citizenship in the classroom and in the school. In so doing, they develop the capacity to think critically and independently and to engage in dialogue and debate on matters political. In this respect, presidential elections are a special “teachable moment,” in which students are unusually motivated and predisposed to engage in the practice of those skills, taking the first steps in critical thought and political debate. At this and other times, a teacher must be a good democratic citizen to be an educator of democratic citizenship.

The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of political expression and freedom of political association is thus an indispensable foundation of both democratic citizenship and citizenship education in the United States. The will of the people can only be known and exercised when three conditions are met: first, there is a robust and vigorous public debate which presents policy alternatives; second, there is a clear choice between representatives who are pledged to enact those policy alternatives; and third, there is a deliberative process in which the citizenry – as well as the candidates for public office – engage each other. Without freedom of expression and freedom of association, none of this is possible; it is the sine qua non of democracy. This is why the Supreme Court has given the broadest protections, among all constitutional rights, to political expression and association. Similarly, citizenship education in the classroom demands a foundation of free expression and free inquiry.

The founding slogan of the American Federation of Teachers, “Education for Democracy, Democracy for Education,” reflects the preeminent place teacher unionists have always given to democratic citizenship education. We believe that there is a world of difference between such democratic citizenship education and efforts to proselytize students into a particular political or ideological perspective, a practice which we have steadfastly opposed throughout our history. A teacher who engages in political proselytizing, or who treats students differently based on their political views they hold, is a teacher who betrays the trust a democratic society has placed in him or her as an educator of the next generation of citizens.

In breaking with at least a quarter century of its own precedent, the Department of Education announced in this week’s P-Weekly that the First Amendment rights of staff to free political expression should be restricted in schools. “School staff may not wear buttons or apparel in support of a political candidate while in school or during school activities,” principals were told. Further, “the distribution or posting of materials in support of a political candidate in a school building” was prohibited. For as long as I have taught in New York City public schools, through some six presidential elections, four elections for each Senator and twelve elections of members of the House of Representatives, five gubernatorial elections, five mayoral elections and more state and citywide ballot referenda than I can recall, the Board of Education/Department of Education had a very different policy. There was no prohibition of election campaign buttons, and no attempt was made to prevent the UFT from communicating with its members on participation in the electoral process in schools. When educators were at the helm of New York City public schools, they saw no harm, but rather some worthwhile good, in students knowing that their teachers were engaged in the primary right and responsibility of citizenship, participation in the electoral process. Why the DoE chose this moment to establish a new policy limiting free political expression will have to be explained by those who took this unfortunate step, but one thing is clear: those who now occupy Tweed do not understand the fundamental distinction between education into democratic citizenship, modeled by teachers who practice that citizenship, and the inappropriate use of the classroom to proselytize a particular political view or ideology. Their actions can not but have a chilling effect on citizenship education.

It is worth pointing out that, to be consistent here, the DoE would have to prohibit from public schools the numerous newspapers and newsmagazines which are do not simply state a preference for this candidate or that political party, as a political button does, but make as convincing a case as they can that their readers should embrace that same choice. Note that it would be the exceptional school which could afford and provide print media on different sides of an election campaign, especially since the editorial choices of the different publications is not always clear at the outset of a campaign. And remember that many a tabloid journal makes little practical distinction between its editorial stance and its news coverage. But if there is a positive educational purpose in having students read and analyze such media advocacy, in learning how to become a critical consumer of such information, why do we need to protect students from the mere knowledge that a teacher is actively supporting a candidate or a cause? If the DoE would not censor print media during an election campaign, why should it censor such modest political expression as a button on the part of educators?

UFT President Randi Weingarten has made clear that if necessary, the UFT will go to federal court to defend the First Amendment rights of school staff to free political expression in schools. What is at stake is not simply the rights of educators, but a vibrant education into democratic citizenship.



  • 1 Love to Teach
    · Oct 5, 2008 at 8:01 am

    I think the students can wear political buttons. Not sure if an enployee can wear buttons during working hours.
    All teachers can discuss the election, politics and history of elections without wearing buttons. The students would benefit anyway.
    While on the topic of the election, our economic concerns are getting bad, maybe the UFT can cut down on their political expenditures and reduce our union dues.

  • 2 jd2718
    · Oct 5, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    Political expenditures come from COPE, donated voluntarily (redundant, I know), not from dues.


  • 3 jagrin
    · Oct 5, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    I agree that as educators of future leaders and citizens, that we should educate students on civic responsibility. When I say civic responsibility, I am not just talking about educating students on the right to vote. Civic responsibility involves more. It involves motivating students to become involved in their community and being able to “challenge the status quo in their community when democracy is obstructed” (The Last Word, Nader, page 144). By doing so, teachers are supplying learning opportunities for critical thinking. Students should be given the chance to analyze the community around them and then form opinions and act upon them.

  • 4 jelfrank
    · Oct 8, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    I was asked today by an assistant principal to remove my Obama button. I am the chapter leader at Murry Bergtraum High School. I did remove it so as not to be insubordinate and have complained to the UFT and encourage the leadership to take it to court along with other complaints.

    This is a disturbing trend that shouldn’t be at all surprising. Since regime change from the Board of Ed to the Department of Ed, we have seen a “corporatization” of the ethos in our educational system. Corporations are by nature undemocratic institutions with rigid top-down hierarchical structures. The Bush administration has also shown a healthy contempt for democracy and it has filtered down right to the city and school level. Too often we have seen DoE’s contempt for transparency and attempts to undermine teacher rights in the schools. In addition, on a more personal note, to this I spent 43 hours in jail for being caught in the net of a sweep during the 2004 Republican National Convention for a demonstration in which I was not a participant. Mayor Bloomberg, a man whose principles yield to convenience (not to mention his rethinking term limits), has demonstrated his shallow commitment to democratic values.

    Therefore, the Chancellor’s Memo D-130 must be challenged; as it signals a move away from the values of democracy to one of conformity and obedience to an unaccountable tyranny that is the Department of Education under Chancellor Klein. Indeed, Education for Democracy and Democracy for Education!

  • 5 Love to Teach
    · Oct 11, 2008 at 5:02 am

    “UFT files lawsuit challenging DOE ban on campaign buttons”,
    I hope this is not a waste of time and resources !!!

  • 6 Buttons and Bows - Stanley Fish Blog - NYTimes.com
    · Oct 12, 2008 at 10:21 pm

    […] way of answering it is to claim, as Leo Casey does, that teachers who wear campaign buttons are performing a valuable educational purpose. Rather than […]

  • 7 Love to Teach
    · Oct 15, 2008 at 7:03 am

    “Is wearing a campaign button performing a valuable educational purpose”,
    That is an issue of fact, and let’s be real, there are many options available to all teachers to integrate the election process into a classroom lesson and debate.

  • 8 More On Teaching Democratic Citizenship And Educators’ Freedom Of Political Expression | Edwize
    · Oct 16, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    […] campaign buttons in schools, criticizing Randi Weingarten’s public pronouncements and my Edwize commentary on the issue. The author of There Is No Such Thing As Free Speech, And That Is A Good Thing, Too […]