School Censorship: Compulsion Creates Conflict

John Semmens is an economist for the Laissez Faire Institute, a free-market research organization in Tempe, Arizona.

“School Censorship Upheld” read the headline in my city’s daily newspaper. The January 13th ruling by the Supreme Court that school officials have the right to control the content of the student newspaper is stirring controversy. Unfortunately, little attention is being directed to the root of the problem: public schools.

It is because the schools are publicly owned and operated that an otherwise reasonable act takes on sinister potential. It is the existence of tax-financed education that creates the inevitable clash of individual rights. That is, both sides of this case have legitimate rights. The resolution of the case in either side’s favor tramples the rights of the other side.

The Court’s logic was sound in asserting that the school, since it sponsors and funds the student paper, has a right to exercise editorial control. To deny this right would amount to requiring someone to fund the publication of ideas he finds offensive or harmful. Some 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson correctly condemned forcing a person to finance ideas he opposes.

On the other hand, critics of the Court’s decision are justified in their fears of growing suppression of expression. The recent trend in Court decisions has upheld warrantless searches and censorship of speech within schools. The extension to student papers is in line with these earlier findings.

If schools were private institutions, privately financed and voluntarily attended, there would be no case to bring to court. Private institutions would have discretion over whether there were a student paper and what its content might be. Those who didn’t like the way this discretion was exercised would be free to take their busi ness elsewhere. Competition among private schools would lead to a diversity of approaches to this issue.

When schools are public, though, there can be no equitable resolution of the problem. Those who find their local schools unsatisfactory, for whatever reason, are not really free to take their business elsewhere. Students are permitted to attend state-approved alternative schools, but not to select unapproved alternatives. Even if the student leaves the public school, his parents aren’t free to withdraw their tax support. Parents may send their child to a state-approved private school, but they still will be required to pay for a public school education not received.

The heavy tax burden for public education effectively limits the schooling choices for many people. Though they might like their child to attend a private school, many parents cannot afford to pay twice for one education. In short, many children are forced to attend public schools.

Because of the compulsory and collectivist method of financing the public schools, the violation of rights is guaranteed. The student writing a controversial article for the school paper has paid (in the form of his parents’ taxes) for part of the cost of the support of the publication. Other taxpayers, who also have paid part of the cost, do not want their tax dollars to fund this controversial article. Whether the article be printed or suppressed, someone’s rights will be violated.

That compulsion and collectivism should threaten free expression is amply demonstrated by conditions in the Soviet Union. The Soviet constitution guarantees a free press. At the same time, though, the government owns all the presses. Obviously, the government cannot allow valuable and scarce resources to be wasted on the expression of “frivolous” or “harmful” ideas. Consequently, the constitutional guarantee is meaningless. Similarly, the attendees of public schools are finding their constitutional guarantees of a free press to be meaningless in a collectivized institution where the authorities own the presses.

The only way to protect the rights of those who express ideas, as well as the rights of those who must pay for the publication of the ideas, is to discontinue the use of compulsion in education. Taxpayers should not be compelled to pay for schooling they neither want nor use. Students should be free to attend any school they or their parents are willing and able to pay for.

Ending coercion in schooling would go a long way toward demonstrating our understanding of and commitment to freedom. A truly free education would eliminate a major source of conflict and injustice in our society.