"Freedom of Speech and John Rocker: A Window of Opportunity for High School Social Studies Teachers"

By Martinson, David L. | High School Journal, October-November 2001 | Go to article overview

"Freedom of Speech and John Rocker: A Window of Opportunity for High School Social Studies Teachers"


Martinson, David L., High School Journal


Although most young people--as is the case with their elders--are supportive of freedom of speech/press in general, the same is not true when one considers First Amendment questions in specific circumstances. The author suggests that popular culture examples, such as the controversy surrounding the recent diatribe of major league pitcher John Rocker, can assist the social studies teacher in helping students move beyond what are, in fact, meaningless generalities. If this does not happen, the author argues, young people--like their elders--will abandon support for First Amendment freedoms at the slightest provocation.

Many young people take freedom of speech/ press for granted--they accept it is a given which they enjoy by virtue of their status as citizens of a free society. Attempting to introduce them to the complexities of the subject will frequently engender yawns and other obvious signs of disinterest/boredom.

It is not, it should be noted, that young people are robust supporters of First Amendment freedoms. As is the case with a majority of all Americans, they support freedom of expression in a rather general way. Get into specifics, however, and they are just as likely as their elders to favor repression of dissident viewpoints. Communication scholars DeFleur and Dennis (1998) correctly note:

   Almost all Americans will nod vigorously in agreement if asked whether they
   believe in freedom of the press. It ranks with motherhood, the Marines, and
   the American flag as a source of national esteem. However, when pressed on
   some specific case--such as pornography, criticism of their favorite public
   figure, or unfavorable stories about themselves--their assent to a free
   press is likely to vanish (p. 497).

This is unfortunate. As Pember (1992) notes, "freedom of expression is the foundation upon which all our other political rights and privileges rest" (p. 476). For example, Pember asks, how "could we speak out against illegal police actions if there was no freedom of speech? ... The First Amendment ... truly supports all the other constitutional guarantees" (p. 476).

Consequently, it is important that our secondary schools engage in a much more aggressive effort to develop in students at least a minimal level of interest/sophistication regarding those basic philosophical principles supporting freedom of speech/press. Such an effort is important because persons who lack any appreciation and understanding of those principles "will be the first to abandon them at times of crisis in the interest of economic, political and/or social expediency" (Martinson. 1993, p. 125).

The teacher's dilemma is obvious--how to get students "excited" about the subject matter to that point at which they will begin to engage in some genuine thinking and questioning. In the space that follows I would like to provide one suggestion prompted by questions I received from students based on the very controversial utterings of John Rocker, a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves major league baseball team.

Using Examples that "Matter"

Young people are--for better or worse--part of a postmodern generation whose heroes are mass media driven. A short time ago, for example, I asked undergraduates in one my communication classes to name the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. I was greeted by a sea of blank looks. Nearly all, however, were able to name the head coaches of the major area professional sports teams!

Perhaps even more illustrative--and this suggests that the power of the mass media to build identities is not limited to young people--was the success of former professional wrestler Jesse "the Body" Ventura in winning the governorship of Minnesota, one of the most progressive states in America. In fact, frightening as it may be for some of us, I am sure that a larger percentage of undergraduates in my classes could name the top four or five "heroes" from the world of professional wrestling than would be able to identify the two U. …

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