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DeVos’ Strong Words on Suppression of Speech, State of Civics Education

By Alyson Klein — September 17, 2018 5 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a Constitution Day appearance in Philadelphia that the nation’s schools are giving short shrift to civics and history, in part because of the pressure to focus on reading and science, technology, engineering, and math or STEM subjects.

And she pointed a finger at American colleges and universities for placing what she described as severe limitations on students’ freedom of speech and expression. She ticked off several examples featuring conservative students who say their views were sidelined by more-liberal college administrations.

DeVos said that schools need to teach students to engage with others with whom they might disagree. And she said this needs to begin at the K-12 level, where she said civics education hasn’t been a priority.

“It hasn’t been a focus. We’ve been focusing a lot on math, science and reading, which are all, of course, very important subjects,” DeVos said in remarks at the National Constitution Center, a nonpartisan interactive museum. “But I think it’s really important that students learn about the history of this nation that they are here to actually protect and enhance from this day forward.”

DeVos’ comments echo those of more than half of the principals surveyed earlier this year by the Education Week Research Center. Fifty-two percent said their schools devote “too little” time to civics instruction, while 48 percent say they give about the right amount.

The Trump administration has pushed in its most recent budget proposal for dedicated resources for STEM education, but not for civics.

At the postsecondary level, DeVos said, colleges aren’t allowing students to hear perspectives that administrators may disagree with. She gave the example of Ashlyn Hoggard, an Arkansas State University student who tried to start a campus chapter of Turning Point USA, an organization that embraces limited government. Hoggard ran afoul of campus regulations on protesting, which require students to stick to certain “speech zones.” (Hoggard and Turning Point are now suing ASU.)

“These so-called ‘free speech zones’ are popping up on campuses across the country, but they’re not at all free,” DeVos said.

She also pointed to an incident at the College of William and Mary, in Virginia, in which students affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement prevented a guest from the American Civil Liberties Union from speaking.

“Administrators too often attempt to shield students from ideas they subjectively decide are ‘hateful’ or ‘offensive’ or ‘injurious’ or ones they just don’t like,” DeVos said. “This patronizing practice assumes students are incapable of grappling with, learning from, or responding to ideas with which they disagree.”

That “heckler’s veto” has applied to her, too, she said.

“More than a few institutions have been unwilling to provide a forum for their students to discuss serious policy matters that affect our country. I can and have found other forums, but what about students who cannot?,” DeVos asked. (She didn’t get into specifics on which universities had excluded her. But she faced protestors at Harvard University last fall.)

And DeVos admonished an unnamed teacher who wore a shirt saying ‘Find Your Truth.’

“Our self-centered culture denies truth because acknowledging it would mean certain feelings or certain ideas could be wrong. But no one wants to be wrong. It is much easier to feel comfortable in saying there is no truth. Nothing that could challenge what we want to believe,” DeVos said. “But learning is about thinking, reasoned argument and it’s also about discovering facts. If ultimately there are no facts - if there is no objective truth - then there is no real learning.”

DeVos said social media makes it easy to lower the level of discourse. “It’s easy to be nasty hiding behind screens and Twitter handles. It’s not so easy when we are face to face. When we are, we more quickly recognize that behind each strongly-held idea are heartbeats, emotions, experiences ... in other words, a real person,” she said.

DeVos is right that students need to have a clear sense of their First Amendment rights before they enter college, said Clay Calvert, a professor at the University of Florida and the director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project.

In particular, students need to realize that it protects all kinds of speech, even if it’s offensive. And they need to understand that private organizations can censor someone, even if the government can’t.

But Calvert thought that DeVos missed the mark in implying that conservative views aren’t given a fair shake on campus.

“I don’t agree with her that people no longer search for or discuss the truth or that all administrators are left wing and try to inculcate their values,” he said. “What she is attempting to say is that certain academics are trying to manipulate that marketplace of ideas to exclude certain viewpoints from coming out,” he said. But, in his view, that’s not the case.

Instead, President Donald Trump is often the one ignoring facts, he said. “The irony is we have her working for Trump who derides everything as fake news.”

That irony wasn’t lost on the students either.

During a question-and-answer session with students, one high schooler asked DeVos whether “the idea of hiding behind screens and hiding behind social media, don’t you feel that example should be brought to our current government?”

The student didn’t mention President Donald Trump by name, but her question could have been a reference to his Twitter feed, which he frequently uses to attack political enemies and the media.

In response, DeVos reiterated her previous point—and steered clear of bringing up her boss.

“The distance, the separation that really occurs between someone who puts something out on social media without really considering the receiving end of that communication doesn’t help with the overall discourse,” she told the student. “We’re best off when we’re able to sit down and talk about things that we may agree on or disagree on and talk about them face to face or in a small group setting.”

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos listens to a question during a student town hall at National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Sept. 17.

--Matt Rourke/AP

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