Grownups should know better

The recent wave of shootings at high schools across the nation, it appears, has claimed more innocent victims: freedom of thought, the right to privacy — and an 11th-grader at Friends Central School.

The 11th-grader was expelled after Friends Central administrators received a transcript of a private e-mail exchange with a friend in which he argued that we should “kill off the stupid and crazy people.”

“Stupid and crazy” is a good way to describe the actions of everyone involved except the student. By expelling him, the administrators of Friends Central violated basic principles of decency, such as respect for privacy.

There appears to be a hysteria of sorts over school violence that leads people to take measures that do nothing to address the problem. Most people would be surprised to know that school violence has gone down, not up, over the past 10 years. But the pictures streaming out of places like Littleton and Jonesboro have led people to overreact.

Rhetoric, not action

We ought to pay attention to serious terroristic threats. But who among us has not wished to have someone, in private conversation, removed from our world? We all understand that such remarks are merely rhetorical. There’s an expression that kids use all the time when they want to keep a secret: “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.” The student’s remarks fell into that same category, and he ought not to have been punished for them.

The administrators also showed a profound ignorance of more than rhetoric, though, when they expelled the student. They also showed a lack of respect for the privacy that guarantees true freedom of thought.

Decent people allow others a zone of privacy. That zone includes what we think, what we say to ourselves, and what we say to people with whom we maintain relations of an intimate and private nature. What people say in private communications with friends is special and privileged, and the rhetoric of conversations between friends is nobody else’s business.

Both the chaperone who printed out this private conversation and the administrators who received it violated this privileged zone. The chaperone’s reading of private mail was offensive enough, but the administrators compounded the affront by acting on it as they did. You would think that adults would know better.

Quaker inquisitors

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the student had said what he had said in a public forum. Would the administrators have been justified in their harsh punishment then?

Not if they wished to reinforce the values they claim to promote. The Quakers have long stressed the importance of the individual conscience, the need to think critically and the value of discussion and consensus. Yet in passing swift judgment on this student, they ignored the first value and foreclosed any chance for the others to be reinforced. They acted like inquisitors, and the phrase “Quaker inquisitor” ought to be an oxymoron.

The fact is, the statement was part of an exchange which, had it taken place in public, probably would have demonstrated the values of discussion and consensus. But the discussion was not a public one.

There is a reason why decent people across the political spectrum worry when a government uses threats of violence or terrorism as an excuse to invade the sphere of privacy, as such actions can easily lead to the creation of an intrusive police state. We cannot excuse similar actions merely because a private group or institution engages in them. That is especially true when the institution is one dedicated to the purpose of promoting intellectual inquiry and critical thought.

Alan Charles Kors, Ph.D., is professor of history and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

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Originally published on February 17, 2000