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Suspending Education - A Commentary

By Marisa Trevi?o, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – Ever since the announcement that the U.S. would make a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, the issue of free speech has been volleyed back and forth more often than tennis serves at a Wimbledon match.

What should be a no-brainer for anyone born into a democratic society - that the freedom to voice an opinion and not be stigmatized for holding that belief - has become clouded with accusations of being unpatriotic and blacklisting reminiscent of the McCarthy era. It's something Peggy Connally used to only teach. Now, she's living it as well.

Ms. Connally, a veteran college government instructor who knows the ins and outs of due process of law, individuals' rights and free speech, is in her second month of a suspension handed down from her superiors at North Central Texas College.

Her suspension is a result of a student's complaint that a February extra credit assignment - for her American National Government class to attend a peace rally - didn't also include the option of attending a pro-war rally.

What's curious is that the normal student complaint process, where the teacher is notified of the complaint and given the opportunity to address it, was disregarded. Also, three community leaders, along with the student, are listed on the complaint that accused Ms. Connally of teaching unfairly. Community leaders who never set foot in Ms. Connally's government class nor heard what the overall assignment entailed.

Had they been more level-headed in their thinking - rather than rushing to join a Stars and Stripes lynch mob - these community leaders would have discovered that Ms. Connally's teaching is far from being one-sided. In fact, the original assignment involved a classroom debate where students were given the option of either researching the war with Iraq or the Bush Administration's policy.

Having taught for over 12 years, Ms. Connally knows that student complaints are part of the job. Yet, what was not in the job description was that faculty had no rights when it came to defending themselves or exercising academic freedom, even during a time of war.

To further polarize the matter, college administrators dispensed a special survey to Ms. Connally's government class. It wasn't the normal teacher evaluation students are accustomed to filling out. This was a survey former students of Ms. Connally have told her they felt was biased and could not be answered in any way but negative towards the suspended teacher. To top it off, students were asked to sign the "so-called" surveys.

With so few places left in this country to exercise free speech without fear of ridicule or harassment, the incident at North Central Texas College is disturbing and frightening.

It's disturbing because there now exists fears of censorship and job loss among college professors who are especially skilled in training minds to reach outside their comfort zones to form educated opinions. And it's disturbing to see administrators, who should be defending the rights of their faculty to stimulate that kind of intellectual growth only fostered in academia, cower before a select group of bullies.

It's frightening because the very students who are the future of this democracy are now dictating policy. A policy reflective of their ignorance - due to their lack of education - of the universal truth that everyone has rights, regardless of what side of the desk you're sitting.

Marisa Trevino is a writer from Rowlett.