Before I wrote columns for Up & Coming Weekly, I wrote editorials for our family broadcasting business, one of the few broadcasting companies in the country to share its opinions regularly. Another is Capital Broadcasting in Raleigh, parent of WRAL. I have also spent decades exchanging political opinions in public and in private with all sorts of people, those who agree with me and those who do not.
This is a long way of saying the First Amendment is not theoretical to me. It is incorporated into my daily life and has been since I first remember talking politics with my contemporaries, other junior high school students at the old Teen Club on Rowan Street. The First Amendment was woven into my soul in 9th grade civics, a course that although I did not know at the time, would shape my adult life to this very moment. The First Amendment is as fundamental to me as food, clothing and shelter.
It is also why the story of Lee Francis, a teacher at Massey Hill Classical High School, snagged my attention immediately.
Francis is a history teacher at a rigorous school with many accelerated students who applied to be there and who are college bound and beyond. In teaching a lesson involving a First Amendment case, Texas v. Johnson, Francis illustrated the point that free expression is not necessarily just verbal or written by putting his foot on an American flag. He apparently tapped his foot on the flag more than once, at which point at least one student left the classroom.
A public firestorm ensued with some saying Francis was not only making a First Amendment point to his students but also exercising his own rights as an American citizen. Others said he desecrated our American flag and did so in front of a classroom of impressionable high school students. The Cumberland County School System initially suspended Francis, with pay, and later added a 10-day non-paid suspension. In the meantime, Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West said his office would not prosecute Francis because he was acting within the protection of the First Amendment.
Talk about a teachable moment in a year when campaign ugliness and name calling have reached heights even long-time political observers have trouble stomaching, First Amendment rights not withstanding.
My own first reaction to this local brouhaha was “thank goodness we have teachers like Lee Francis.”
No need to dwell on what we all know about North Carolina teachers. Our state has gone from the national average in teacher pay to the bottom of the national barrel, and our teachers are fleeing in droves north, south and west to states that pay them better. Then there is the reality that most teachers are and have traditionally been women. A man standing before a classroom is a statistical oddity, and we need more of them not only to teach but to model for our children. Whatever your feelings about the Massey Hill flag incident, it is hard not to be thankful that teachers like Lee Francis are in our classrooms helping our children understand what it means to be an American.
That being said, could Francis have made his point in a way that did not offend others and in a way that did not involve his foot on the American flag?
Certainly he could have.
But would his point made as powerful an impression as did his foot did?
We cannot know for sure, of course, but I doubt it. Our mothers told us that actions speak louder than words, and our mothers were right. The point Francis was attempting to make — and did make in my opinion, is that our Constitution and specifically the First Amendment allow us to share our thoughts and opinions whether those on the receiving end like or agree with them or not. This was a novel concept when our forebears adopted it in the late 18th century, and it has served our nation so well for more than 200 years that other nations have modeled their Constitutions on ours. Our right of free expression is ours no matter what our government, the Cumberland County School system or you and I think about what is being expressed.
What happened in a Massey Hill Classical High School history class earlier this month was indeed a teachable moment for everyone — Lee Francis, his students and the rest of us. I am grateful that from time to time we have such moments to remind us of what a great nation we all call home.