Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Is silence a freedom of speech, too?

Every year or two, there is a big controversy somewhere in Iowa at about this time of year about prayer in schools. Someone wants to get some religion into the graduation ceremony, others howl about the separation of church and state, and school officials squirm in the middle until blissful summer safely renders the issue moot.

This year, it's been LeMars' turn to make the statewide headlines, with a bit of a twist.

Students didn't ask for a graduation prayer there, just a moment of silence. Blank. Quiet. You might suspect some prayers in there, perhaps for grades to make college admission, but who's going to know for sure?

The superintendent of schools nixed this bit of business, thinking it to be a way of sneaking that prayer stuff into the school function. Seven of the students to take part in the commencement made a federal case out of it - no really, they sued in U.S. court in Sioux City to force their superintendent to change his mind: an honest to goodness federal case out of it.

Intriguingly, the students claimed in part that silence is part of their Constitutional right to free speech. Or free non-speech, as the case may be.

Lo and behold, Superintendent Todd Wendt has now reversed his earlier decision, and given the students 30 silent seconds to not say their piece. I'll be darned.

Prayer in school is always an interesting debate.

I'm of the opinion that a prayer never did much damage to a kid, silent or out loud. It might have been the only thing to get me through Algebra II and Sadie Hawkins dances.

And those who support prayer have a good point - it is a free country, and it's hard to defend anyone having the power to tell a student what they can or can't say, or in this case, think silently to themselves.

On the other hand, and goodness knows there is always another hand, there's a reason for separation of religion and public schools.

Schools have only 180 days to teach kids to read, write, punch computers and how to survive being thumped in the head with a dodge-ball. We have churches and parents to teach kids how to pray. Public schools are a place for people of all religions, and even those with no religion at all. It's pretty hard to impose any one-size-fits-all creed on such a diverse crowd. Nobody should be forced to pray, or should have to feel uncomfortable because they don't choose to, not in a public school.

Of course, it isn't an issue at the local parochial schools. And some of the area public schools get around the issue by having religious leaders organize a baccalaureate for those who want to invite their God to the graduation season, safely off the public school site.

But every year or two, at some school, the issue will be raised and furiously debated. Some jaded someone might suggest that it may sometimes be zealous parents pushing their teens into the positions of trying to work their religion into school, but I prefer to give the kids the benefit of the doubt for having their own minds.

The exercise is probably a good one. Nothing wrong with questioning authority, speaking out, defending your beliefs. Win or lose, students who raise issues in their schools are probably well preparing themselves for life.

LeMars deserves credit for expanding the issue of free speaking to one of free not-speaking. Fascinating topic.

Heck, after 13 years of vain attempts by school staff to hush students into quiet, one would think a moment of voluntary youth silence might be welcomed.

Is silence a matter of free speech? Um, yeah, the more I think about it, the more I think it is. I plan to employ it next time the officer who pulls me over asks, "So, do you know how fast you were going?"

Don't blame a kid for wanting to pray if he or she is so moved. And don't blame a school official for saying "Not here," the law has put them in that position. I sure don't blame Superintendent Wendt for changing his mind, either. Graduation is a time to simply celebrate the academic achievement of the kids, and the possibilities that await them. In LeMars, it was becoming about a prayer battle instead. Better to give up the 30 seconds to recover the focus on the students.