State Rep. Dean Dohrman contends Missouri students don’t know enough about their rights. He has introduced a bill this legislative session to address the issue, but the bill’s positives come with some drawbacks.
Dohrman’s motivation came from November’s unrest at the University of Missouri-Columbia, when students protesting what they saw as racial discrimination on campus – and aided by a couple of misguided university employees – tried to prevent journalists from covering the story, which was taking place in public space. Melissa Click, an assistant professor of communications, lurched into national consciousness with her horribly wrong-headed threats against a pair of student journalists. Dohrman was struck by the whole incident.
“I am very much concerned that we are not really giving enough education on our Constitution and our constitutional system, and how our government works and what self-government is about in America,” he told me. “Right after the turmoil we had at Columbia, I saw a Pew Research poll that said 40 percent of millennials believe that there should be restrictions on freedom of speech. That really caught my notice after everything that went on at Columbia. I said, ‘Now there is a problem.’”
So Dohrman, R-La Monte, introduced state House Bill 1637, which would mandate that any student graduating after Aug. 28, 2019, from a Missouri two- or four-year college be required to pass a three credit-hour course on freedom of speech. Course work would include “study of the concept of freedom of speech as embodied in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and in Article I, 6 Section 8 of the Missouri Constitution, and discussion of the concepts of freedom of inquiry and the history of speech suppression in the United States and in other countries.”
Dohrman said students “really need to delve in deeper about why freedom of speech is so important; it is foundational to our system and I thought a little more instruction in that … would be a good thing. It would make better citizens and help us preserve our self-government in the future.”
I can’t argue with Dohrman’s points there – I teach the First Amendment as part of my Introduction to Journalism course at Smith-Cotton High School. However, speech is just one of the freedoms protected in the First Amendment, which also covers freedom of religion, press, assembly and petition. When I mentioned the need for understanding of all the First Amendment freedoms, Dohrman said he has that covered with his companion legislation, HB2241, which expands Bill of Rights education in Missouri high schools.
“The two together would expand understanding of the Constitution and the system that we have,” Dohrman said. “I think to be a good citizen we could spend a lifetime studying our system, but because freedom of speech is so fundamental to self-government, at least we will spend three hours’ worth of credit at the college level … talking about why it is so important.”
But the five First Amendment freedoms frequently work together in harmony – speech and assembly come together to permit lawful public protest, and religion and petition combine to allow citizens the opportunity to head off politicians’ too-frequent efforts to infuse their faith into law. To stress this, I do scenarios in class in which students first have to choose one of the five freedoms to give up, then choose which one they would retain if forced to give up the other four. The students’ discussions are thoughtful and enlightening, and they gain an appreciation for all five freedoms.
Critics in higher education point out that HB1637 is an unfunded mandate, as no additional funds are provided to hire and train staff to teach the course. Dohrman contends there should be “plenty of qualified staff at the college level to teach the course” and the only burden would be additional lesson preparation time, “but that is part of their salary. There really is no extra cost.”
Since Missouri already has U.S. government and Constitution education requirements for high school students, and since not every kid goes to college, it seems Dohrman should be encouraging greater understanding of First Amendment freedoms at the high school level. This also would avoid adding another required course that college students would have to pay for out of their own pockets. But again, parents and politicians consistently complain that state and federal mandates are stripping school districts of local control, and HB1637 would be another “must” to add to an increasingly restrictive course load for Missouri students.
“I have taught American government for the past 20 years. I really enjoy it because it is a course that people will take with them the rest of their lives,” Dohrman said. “I just want to reinforce that a bit more so we have good, informed citizens who will participate and make good decisions, and actually get out and vote and be a part of our system.”
As frequently is the case with legislation, the intentions are well-meaning but the application is problematic.
Bob Satnan is the communications director for Sedalia School District 200.