What does Yertle the Turtle have in common with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Excerpts from both have been banned from appearing on T-shirts in schools -- for being too political.
Dr. Suess published Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories in 1958 as a kind of allegory about the abuses of power. It has been reported that, writing shortly after the end of the Second World War, Dr. Suess created Yertle to be a Hitler-like figure -- a warning to young and old about the dangers of power in the hands of those who do not recognize the rights of others. The impugned T-shirt quotes a character in the story who says, "I know, up on the top you are seeing great sights, but down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights."
The Charter, however, has only been around since 1982. As part of the Constitution of Canada, it starts out in Section 1 by telling us that, while all of our rights and freedoms are guaranteed as listed in the sections to follow, they will be "subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society."
Protesting teachers who were disciplined in Prince Rupert, B.C. apparently wore black T-shirts emblazoned on the back with all the words contained in Section 2 of the Charter, not Section 1. Section 2 is the one that guarantees our fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion, opinion, expression, peaceful assembly, and association -- all those "political" things that we need to ensure that we have a functioning democracy. Perhaps the T-shirt should have stuck with Section 1. After all, it is within the power of a school board to set certain "reasonable limits."
But, is it reasonable for a school board to limit freedom of expression by determining that political expression is unacceptable in school? If it is, how can we teach history, literature, or even science and math?
Chances are good that both Yertle and the Charter can be found in many, if not most, schools in the country. It would be extraordinary, and likely very frightening to most people, if a school board were to demand that the Charter be removed from its schools. Dr. Seuss has a pretty big fan club, too. So what happened here?
Here are a few questions that school board should think about before deciding yet again to curtail freedom of expression:
• What is the difference between words in the Constitution and the same words on a shirt?
• Is the purpose of an order to remove a T-shirt that reproduces Section 2 of the Charter to keep teachers from unduly influencing their students about a political issue?
• Is it to keep students from knowing about teachers' dissatisfaction with their employers?
• Is it to keep students from knowing that they, too, have rights and freedoms?
• Should teachers ever be permitted to influence students?
• If not, why do we require teachers to be "role models"?
• Who should determine what makes a good role model?
• Can a political person be a good role model?
• If not, why do we teach students about our country's leaders?
While we may not agree on the answers to these questions, the least we can ask of our school boards is that they spend a little time thinking critically before leaping to conclusions -- just what we hope everyone, teachers, students, and political leaders alike -- will do in a free and democratic society.