Today it's Islamic clerics. But who would be the next target under a measure being considered by the Hillsborough County School Board that would define who could and could not speak in the public schools? This proposal is a solution in search of a problem and nothing more than state-sponsored discrimination. The board should drop it and leave the selection of outside speakers to the judgment of principals and teachers who have dealt ably with the matter all along.
The proposed policy comes in response to a vocal minority who complained after a Hillsborough history teacher invited an imam to speak to her class as part of a discussion on world religions. Her invitation and the topic were entirely appropriate. But the self-appointed standards police in conservative Christian circles tarred the experience as a terrorist indoctrination.
School Board chairwoman Candy Olson, to her credit, strongly defended the teacher and the cause of civic understanding when the controversy first broke out. But now the administration is circulating broad guidelines for guest speakers, which the board will discuss this spring. Teachers and principals would largely retain the discretion to invite outside speakers. But the "guidelines," which fall short of instituting hard and fast policies, name a district administrator as a contact for speakers "as well as the subject" they could discuss. And the proposal advises against inviting speakers from "advocacy groups."
Here is the problem when a bureaucracy tries to avoid controversy by stifling protected speech. If advocacy groups are not appropriate, where does that leave Mothers Against Drunk Drivers? What about groups that promote civil rights, registering first-time voters or antibullying campaigns? School officials said they may apply the guidelines only to speakers from religious organizations. Doesn't that put the district in a position to decide which religions and their leaders are legitimate?
School districts across the state have dealt with this issue, especially in the decade since the 9/11 attacks, and most have found that leaving the decisions to principals and teachers is prudent and reasonable. Any abuses could be dealt with as the anomalies they are. A bigger loss, as is happening now, is creating an environment in which teachers are discouraged from having outside speakers come to campus and share their experiences. This is a big, interconnected world, and education should be an antidote, not a throughway, to ignorance and bigotry.