The Local CBS News in Sacramento is reporting that Shauna Baker, a speech and debate teacher at West High School in Tracy California, has taken up the practice of penalizing students who who omit the words “under God” when reciting the pledge of allegiance. Derek Gardena, 17 years old, omitted the words, and has subsequently had points docked from his grade and has been forced to serve detention. As a university debate coach this hits close to my heart. The whole point of a speech and debate curriculum is to encourage thoughtful citizenship, to teach children the power of their voice and actions to create change in the world, to teach young people that they can use their voices instead of coercion to resolve conflicts, and to learn which ideas are harmless and which may lead to violence. That last category, the category into which we place hate speech, inciting riots, and fighting words, is the kind of speech we punish. If disbelief and a refusal to pay lip service to a god one doesn’t believe in can be categorized with these other despicable behaviors, the secular community will live in constant fear of punishment and coercion.
What’s more, we cannot teach our children that their voices matter if we simultaneously punish them for voicing their opinions. A speech and debate curriculum should only punish students when their behaviors are demonstrably harmful to others or disruptive without pedagogical value. What Baker has done is to forsake an opportunity for debate to occur in a controlled learning environment in which both sides could have the opportunity to change hearts and minds. Instead of punishing this young man and resorting to coercion in the face of peaceful dissent, a behavior that should be regarded as an affront to American and Western values, she could have turned this into a debate, which doesn’t seem like too much to ask of a speech and debate teacher. But now she’s likely taught her students to fear the consequences of speaking up for their beliefs or lack thereof. This is truly a sad day for the academic debate community.
If you’d like to voice your opposition to Baker’s actions, you can email West High School Principle Troy Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.