Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Being a journalist, the 1st Amendment to our Constitution is mighty important to me. I have often found myself having to bite my tongue when I see or hear something that goes far beyond the pale, but do so because I know that it is that individual’s right to express themselves in ways that do not make sense to me, that do not make me comfortable.
As a journalist, I very much buy into the idea that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Although, sometimes, that is not easy. Such was the case this past week in Cumberland County. By now, everyone has heard that Lee Francis, the Massey Hill teacher who attempted to teach his students about the 1st Amendment by stepping on the flag, has been suspended for 10 days for his object lesson. So that’s old news. But maybe, there is something that we all have missed.
Francis, who has been very vocal with the media — local and national — over the past week, has made no bones of the fact that he believes what he was doing was right and that the students, parents and community are the ones who are out of step. I disagree. I believe that Francis is the one out of the step.
There is no doubt that Francis has the right to disrespect our flag. Our Supreme Court ensured that. There is also no doubt that Francis, as the teacher, has the right to set the rules of his classroom. But what Francis cannot demand, but what he must earn, is the respect of his students, their parents and our community.
This is where, I believe, he has failed miserably.
Before one moves into a community, they should learn about the community. They should learn the social mores, the beliefs, the attitude of the community. If what they believe is at great odds with that community, then perhaps it is not the place for them to be.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to recognize the type of community that exists in Cumberland County. Cumberland County is a military community. There are more heroes in this community than you can shake a stick at because we are, after all, the Home of the 82nd Airborne and the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. There are probably more kids in our schools with dads and moms deployed than there are with them at home. There are also many families who have lost loved ones in the wars over the past 16 years — families who have lost friends and neighbors during the wars. So calling our community The All-American Community is a pretty good indicator about how people feel about their country and its symbols.
This is something that Francis, who chose to move to this community, should have understood when he began teaching the community’s students. Francis should have learned about his students. He should have known how many of them have family members serving. He should have considered that there may be kids in his school whose parents came back home covered in an American Flag. If he understood all of those things, he would have understood that his action, was much like the person yelling fire in a movie theater. His action was inflammatory. He has acknowledged that. He was trying to make a point. When you go out of your way to make a point through inflammatory activities, then you can’t be surprised that you get burned. It’s called using sound judgement, something that I think was missing from his object lesson and definitely from his actions following the event.
If Francis, in fact, was trying to teach an object lesson, than he should not have been surprised by some of his students reactions or the community’s. You see, another great tenet of democracy is civil disobedience, which is a refusal to obey governmental demands or commands, especially in a nonviolent and usually collective means of forcing concessions from the government. That’s what the two students who walked out of class and took the flag with them did. They exercised their right to challenge their leader (teacher) who had demanded something from them that they simply could not stomach. Those students and parents who made their voice heard could not stomach a teacher, someone who is supposed to act wisely, doing the contrary. Yes, he had the right to do what he did — and they had the right to let him know they did not agree.
Superintendent Till also had the right to look at the kind of judgement Francis used in the classroom, and, like many in the community, he found it lacking. So Francis earned a 10-day suspension. His first cry was for the student who sent out the picture to be punished. That student was exercising their right of free speech to say they did not agree.
Francis has had his 15 minutes of fame. Now maybe he can get serious about teaching.