One good thing, perhaps, about the 2010 election is that more people than usual are talking about "free speech." The bad news is that the reason we're talking about it is... because it's been a lousy year for people trying to express their point of view. If you don't believe me, just ask Lauren Valle, the liberal protester who found herself the victim of a new dance step called "The Kentucky Stomp," or the journalists who've been handcuffed and threatened with violence or legal action just for asking questions in public settings, including now this bizarre episode involving Christine O'Donnell and our exotic neighbors to the south (a.k.a. "Delawarians")?
Other outbreaks of America's newfound bias against political speech aren't quite dramatic but are troubling nevertheless. I think there was a common sense solution to the issues raised here locally this week in the Radnor school district, over a proposed event at the school that would have featured a candidate for office -- U.S. House seeker and current state rep Bryan Lentz of Delaware County, and Vice President Joe Biden. Radnor school district officials OK'ed the program last week, then abruptly cancelled it and forced Lentz and Biden to take their gig elsewhere, to a community gymnasium. Remarkably, school officials claimed the issues largely involved short notice, etc., when clearly partisan politics was involved.
Indeed, an Attytood reader forwarded me today an email exchange with one of the Republican majority members on the Radnor board, Susan Michaelson. Michaelson's emaiiled explanation of the cancellation was unambiguous: "This was not to be a neutral visit to our school discussing education policy; is was to be a partisan campaign rally on behalf of the local candidate for the House in a hotly contested election taking place in less than a week. There is a significant difference. Would you have been so eager to have hosted Dick Cheney in Radnor High School on a campaign stop for Craig Williams two years ago under similar circumstances?" (The reader responded "Yes," as would I.)
Really? It's good to know the Radnor policy is consistent, since this event happened just two short years ago:
"I know that some of my opponent's supporters and my opponent are complaining about the hard questions," [Hillary] Clinton said in addressing a warm but loud crowd at Radnor High School.
"Well, having been in the White House for eight years, and seeing what happens in terms of the pressures and stresses on a president, that was nothing," she said. "I'm with Harry Truman on this. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Speaking for myself, I'm very comfortable in the kitchen so, as the heat goes up, that's OK for me."
So basically the Radnor policy is that political candidates are allowed to speak as long as they attack other politicians within their own party? How about this common sense policy -- open the doors of Radnor High School to all political candidates, to the extent that it's not disruptive of the primary goal of teaching students who will build the new generation of high-speed trains or wind turbines (or become the next David Brooks, a Radnor alum). Wouldn't the best thing be for students -- a few of whom are 18 and eligible to vote for the first time -- to hear from Lentz and the No.2 official in the United States, and also from Lentz' opponent Pat Meehan (don't snicker -- some young people in "tony" Radnor would be very receptive to a GOP message) and, ahem, Dick Cheney, who probably supports him :-) .
In virtually every election, 18-29-year-olds vote at a lower rate than any other age group, and more exposure to the sometimes glorious mess that is American democracy in action (as epitomized by the train wreck that is Joe Biden!) would do a lot more good than harm. But in a nation where fear is the default setting for everything, we are so now afraid of even letting people...talk. That's especially true in schools, where a Rubicon of sorts was crossed last year when so many Republicans were angry that a Democratic president was going to address students and urge them to stay in school and do their homework. In a perfect world, education is the setting where young people are exposed to a wide variety of ideas, and that can -- and should -- include politics as long as the rules are applied fairly.
When a stomping gets captured on videotape, like it did in Kentucky the other night, we can all see that it's wrong.
But we shouldn't let the Radnor school district or a handful of partisan-minded school board members stomp on free speech, either.