Tag Archives: John W. Whitehead

Is Tweeting Now a Felony?

Say you want a revolution.
We better get on right away.
Well you get on your feet
And out on the street.
– John Lennon
“Power to the People”

The ominous rise of the surveillance state continues unabated. With each passing day, hope fades that the Obama administration will diverge from George W. Bush’s erection of a police state.

The government’s treatment of Elliot Madison is a case in point. Madison, a 41-year-old self-styled anarchist and social worker, was arrested on September 24, 2009, and charged with violating a federal anti-rioting law. Madison allegedly listened to a police scanner (which, according to the New York Times, is legal) and blogged about it on Twitter to help fellow protesters avoid law enforcement at the G-20 summit taking place in Pittsburgh that same month. (Ironically, just months earlier, the U.S. government called Twitter a boon to democracy after Iranian protesters used it to organize anti-government rallies.)

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Freedom Under Fire

“This is a sad day for the cause of freedom. When the Supreme Court cannot clear their calendar to hear a case of this magnitude, then our freedoms are in jeopardy. Such censorship and discrimination should not be permitted in America.”
John W. Whitehead,
The Rutherford Institute

The United States Supreme Court has refused to hear the case of a high school valedictorian whose microphone was turned off by school officials after she began speaking about the part her Christian beliefs played in her success in life. Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute had asked the Court to hear the case of Brittany McComb, charging that school officials violated McComb’s free speech rights and engaged in viewpoint discrimination when they censored her speech because of its Christian content. The Court issued the order denying the petition without additional explanation.

“This is a sad day for the cause of freedom,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “When the Supreme Court cannot clear their calendar to hear a case of this magnitude, then our freedoms are in jeopardy. Such censorship and discrimination should not be permitted in America.”

In the spring of 2006, Brittany McComb was one of three valedictorians chosen based on their grade-point averages to give a speech at Foothill High School’s annual commencement ceremony. Each valedictorian was provided with “suggestions” for crafting their speeches. However, school officials neither encouraged nor forbade the students to include or exclude religious content from their speeches. In her speech, Brittany reflected on past experiences and lessons learned at school and wrote about the emptiness she experienced from accomplishments, achievements and failures in her early high school years. She then mentioned the fulfillment and satisfaction she later came to experience in something greater than herself, namely, in God’s love, and Christ.

Upon receiving a copy of Brittany’s draft speech, school administrators proceeded to censor her speech, deleting all three Bible references, several references to “the Lord” and the only mention of the word “Christ.” Believing that the district’s censorship of her speech amounted to a violation of her right to free speech, on June 15, 2006, Brittany attempted to deliver the original version of her speech in which she talked about the role that her Christian beliefs played in her success. The moment Brittany began to speak the words, school officials cut off her microphone. Despite extensive jeers from the audience over the school officials’ actions, McComb was not permitted to finish her valedictory speech.

With the assistance of The Rutherford Institute, Brittany McComb filed a First Amendment lawsuit against Foothill High School officials in July 2006. In June 2007, the U.S. District Court for Nevada rejected the school district’s second attempt to have the case dismissed and affirmed that the lawsuit raises substantial claims of infringement of McComb’s right of free speech. School officials subsequently appealed to the Court of Appeals, which dismissed the case, holding that McComb had no right to give her speech, which it deemed to be “proselytizing.”

Despite the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the McComb case, John Whitehead points out that the battle is far from over. “As we see our freedoms constantly under attack, be reminded that The Rutherford Institute continues to defend those whose freedoms are in jeopardy,” stated Whitehead. “In fact, we have two more cases on appeal before the United States Supreme Court. In the first, Nurre v. Whitehead, the courts have ruled that public school students cannot perform Christian music at a graduation ceremony, even without spoken words or printed lyrics. In the second, Busch v. Marple Newtown School District, the courts have affirmed that a Christian mother cannot read a passage from the Psalms to her child in kindergarten, while other parents are permitted to read whatever they choose.”

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit legal and educational civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or been violated.

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The War on Kids

“Education is under siege,” states Dr. Henry Giroux, author of Stealing Innocence: Corporate Culture’s War on Children. “It’s under siege by the marketers. It’s under siege by the corporations.” Most of all, says Giroux, public education is under siege in the sense that it is no longer seen as fundamental to a democracy. Ironically, America’s public schools were once considered the hope of freedom and democracy, the place where young people were to be instructed in the principles of freedom so that they could someday effectively participate in the democratic process. Sadly, that is no longer the case.

Instead, for the more than 49 million students who are attending elementary and secondary public schools this fall, their time in school will be marked by overreaching zero tolerance policies, heightened security and surveillance and a greater emphasis on conformity and behavior-controlling drugs–all either aimed at or resulting in the destruction of privacy and freedom.

In his award-winning documentary The War on Kids (2009), director Cevin Soling examines the dangers posed to young people today by a public school system that looks upon them as “superpredators” to be controlled and treated like criminals. Two obvious results of this dangerous mindset are the rise in zero tolerance policies and the physical transformation of the schools into quasi-prisons.

Zero tolerance policies were first introduced into the schools after Congress passed the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, which required a one-year expulsion for any child bringing a firearm or bomb to school. Unfortunately, from there a precipitous but insidious slide has taken place, resulting in zero tolerance policies that crack down on firearms to policies that discourage undesirable behavior altogether. These policies are now so subjective as to crack down on spit wads, Tweetie Bird keychains and Certs breath mints–all of which constitute contraband of one kind or another.

“Media hysteria really created this groundswell of support for zero tolerance and folks being scared that it could happen at their school,” states Judith Browne, co-director of the Advancement Project. “Now, we have police officers in every school. He’s now there to be law enforcement. He’s there to lock up kids.”

As Soling’s insightful film documents, from the moment they walk into school, students today find themselves under constant surveillance: they are photographed, fingerprinted, scanned, x-rayed, sniffed and snooped on. Between metal detectors at the entrances, drug-sniffing dogs in the hallways and surveillance cameras in the classrooms and elsewhere, America’s schools have come to resemble prison-like complexes. Much of this is an attempt to appease parental fears in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. Yet as one student remarks in the film, “They [the surveillance cameras] don’t really prevent anything. They just take pictures of it.” Indeed, the documentary points out there is no empirical data to show that metal detectors, locker searches, or security cameras have any impact in reducing school violence.

Neither have they managed to reduce drug usage among young people. Yet, ironically, while our nation’s schools have become the primary battleground for the so-called war on drugs, they have also become a testing ground for the pharmaceutical industry. “Why is it that the U.S. has six times as many kids on Ritalin as any other country?” asks Dr. Bertram Karon of Michigan State University. “Because this is the most profitable country to sell your drugs.” In fact, some 4 million children in the United States are on drugs, accounting for 90% of all Ritalin prescriptions in the world.

Ritalin is often prescribed for what is termed “attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder” (ADHD), a condition that was once labeled hyperactivity. However, the drugs that are prescribed for ADHD are cocaine-like stimulants. And according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the human nervous system cannot differentiate between cocaine, amphetamines and methylphenidate–that is, Ritalin.

Unfortunately, since ADHD hit the mainstream in the 1980s, prescriptions for Ritalin have skyrocketed, aided and abetted by school officials and parents who have relied on it to sedate what are termed hyperactive students in and out of the classroom. As psychiatrist Peter R. Breggin notes in Soling’s film, the young people who are being diagnosed and drugged are “often our best and brightest kids, they’re our most energetic kids, our most rebellious kids, our most exciting kids–the kids who may someday really transform the world and bring new and better things into the world.”

This over-drugging of America’s youth has led to deadly consequences. For example, a disturbing number of young school shooters were either on anti-depressants or were withdrawing from anti-depressants. The list of shooters is extensive and ranges from 12-year-old Christopher Pittman who was on Zoloft and withdrawing from Paxil when he killed his paternal grandparents to 17-year-old Eric Harris who was on Luvox when he and his partner Dylan Klebold killed 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine.

Laurie A. Couture, author of Instead of Medicating and Punishing, places the blame for this sorry state of affairs squarely on our educational system. “Our society is built on freedoms and personal liberties, and yet it’s like we take our children and we lock them up in a prison for 13 years of their life,” said Couture.
We regiment every aspect of their physical body, their emotions, their social contacts, and most importantly, their minds–what they can and can’t learn and how they will learn it. And then when they’re 18 years old, and we open the key and we release them into society, suddenly they’re now supposed to know how to think for themselves and be self-starting, innovative, creative, imaginative individuals who are supposed to take part in a democratic process. It’s impossible. It would be like sending the kids over to a fascist nation for 13 years and having them come back and explain what democracy is all about. And yet that’s what we do each and every generation.

The unfortunate fact is that the schools are failing our children. However, the problem goes even deeper. Children are in greater physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual danger now than at any other time during the life of this nation, and the threat is coming from all sides–from dysfunctional families that fail to nurture children, from religious institutions lacking in moral leadership, from communications technology that has contributed to an insulated and isolated society, from an onslaught of entertainment media that pacifies young people, and from a corporate culture that views young people as the means to a greater profit margin.

What can be done? To start with, parents have a duty to become intimately involved in their children’s education and vocally protest when they see their children being mistreated by school officials. But first, parents need to become educated on what’s happening in the public school compounds. An excellent place to start is Cevin Soling’s exceptional documentary, The War on Kids, which is available at www.thewaronkids.com.

As someone once said, “The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.” If this theorem holds true, we face a frightening future.

John W. Whitehead is an attorney and author who has written, debated and practiced widely in the area of constitutional law and human rights. Whitehead’s concern for the persecuted and oppressed led him, in 1982, to establish The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties and human rights organization whose international headquarters are located in Charlottesville, Virginia. To find out more about John Whitehead or The Rutherford Institute, visit their website at www.rutherford.org.


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