April 13, 2010

Smiley Face Tyranny - For the Children

"Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." - George Washington

I have three children in the Munster public school system. I have outsourced my children's schooling to them. The school system is in a very real sense my servant as it serves the families of all the children who attend. It's a scary thing when a servant starts to think themselves your master. When you're giving them your kids for 6 hours a day, it's doubly scary. That was my reality this week as a very nice, pleasant woman explained why I must undergo a background check to supervise my own child.

Schools are given certain powers "in loco parentis" (in place of the parents). Since there is no parent normally available on the spot, schools can manage the child in their absence. This is a very important power and necessary for the health and safety of our children.

Schools do occasionally sponsor events which they insist that a parent attend as a condition of the child participating in the event. At that point, their powers should, at least if the school is not out of control, return to the parents who are now there to directly exercise them. In Munster at least, that is not the case and it's a very slowly creeping and creepy sort of tyranny that results.

We all know and understand that if you're dealing with other people's children, you need to have a background check. Munster schools, at least at Frank H Hammond where my children attend, they occasionally have trips where they tell children that parents must come for them to go on them. This year, the 2nd grade is going to a park to fly kites. Separately, several days later, they send home a background check form to permit you to supervise your own child.

The immediate, visceral response is revulsion but it takes a while to intellectually clarify why, even to yourself. For whose child is the school system acting in loco parentis in placing this requirement? It can't be the children on the trip. They're in the company of their parents and the parents don't have the ability to demand such a background check. Nobody is supervising anybody else's children so there is no question of a parent temporarily exercising in loco parentis powers over someone else's child.

So where did the school get the power to demand that check? I spoke with Frank H Hammond's principal, Mrs. Nancy Ellis about background checks. Boiling down her more lengthy rationale to a word, it's convenience. In her opinion, they can't be making special provisions, treating individual parents specially. It would be too complicated. They tried that approach when they instituted their background check policy, carefully weighing the issues and looking at all the nuances. Then along the way they decided that was too much bother and a simple blanket rule would be much more convenient. And I agree that it is much more convenient, for them.

It's inconvenient to remember your place as a public institution that stands in as a substitute for parents when they aren't around. It's inconvenient to deal with the occasional complexity like an event that has parents that are supervising only their own children. But school authorities, any authorities really, remembering their place is one of those vital underpinnings of liberty.

A quick refresher for those who might have forgotten. It is not normal to have public outings with your children where all the other parents there have undergone a background check. You don't have this at the mall, the train station, the theater, parks department events. In fact, the only time you have background checks done routinely is, once again, when you're handing out in loco parentis powers. Routine investigations into your background as a condition of attending an event with your child (when you are not supervising other children) simply has no basis in US law.

And there's the rub. Doing things that are convenient but have no basis in law is tyranny, no matter how smiley you are in your presentation, how convenient it is for the administration of an institution. You just don't do it. It is wrong.

The story has a somewhat happy ending. Only I will be excluded from the event. If you push hard enough, someone else will still come and supervise your child "in loco parentis" if you challenge. But I won't cry over missing a kite flying occasion. But my daughter did. My only damage is that I had to feel like my heart was being ripped out of my chest as she sobbed about not being able to go over the weekend (got the form on Friday, had my talk yesterday).

I do not have any great hopes for this. I've done my push back, I've gotten my child included in a trip she really wanted to go on. And I know that quietly, when convenient, the same sort of soft 'nudge' will go right back in to pressure parents to prove themselves competent to supervise their own child. After all, it's very convenient. It's very popular with the political class. There's even a book.

There is only one real cure, never-ending vigilance. I had the distinct impression that there wasn't a long line of parents complaining about the usurpation of their parental rights. Had there been, suddenly this policy would have become very inconvenient and been reversed, not to be tried again for a very long time. Too bad, because I'll keep my liberty while others give up theirs. I hope their chains rest lightly.

Posted by TMLutas at 03:13 PM

December 06, 2004

Solving Newspaper Theft?

I was going through yet another article about how conservative student papers are being stolen as an act of ideological suppression when it hit me. The problem of these papers is one of pricing.

If you were able to differentially price each copy, say free for students who want to read it, $0.25 for those who grab it to use it as packing material or bird cage liner (without first reading it), and $10 for those who take it in bulk to not let others read it, you would cease to have a newspaper theft problem, especially one where the administration lets culprits go with a minor slap on the wrist. Bulk theft of newspapers without payment would be elevated to felony.

Who would speak out against charging thieves? What could administration authorities do to continue to protect thieves with which they are in sympathy or afraid of? If they act to protect such thieves, they end up liable themselves for suppressing evidence and facilitating theft, in court themselves and highly embarrassed.

A small, fine print contract printed in the newspapers themselves would change how newspaper theft is dealt with on US campuses. With state courts as a recourse, who would decide to be the test case?

Posted by TMLutas at 08:37 AM

September 29, 2004

Beria's Lesson for HLS

[Update: The plagiarism problem is, in fact, Tribe's. The use of the Beria quote, and the implicit assault on the good name of Harvard Law School and its academics is by fellow Harvard professor, Alan Dershowitz]

Apparently Laurence Tribe is going around quoting Lavrenti Beria to the effect that all Harvard Law School professors are vulnerable to some charge or another and that the administration at HLS (or is it law schools in general) can bring down any one of them at any time by design. The really stunning part is that this is viewed as a viable defense by Prof. Tribe in his own plagiarism scandal.

Prof. Tribe (for those who haven't followed the scandal) has admitted to lifting without attribution a small passage from another professor's work in the field of constitutional law. Among his several defenses, he used Beria's famous line "Show me the man, and I'll find you the crime". This line has always been taken to mean that the purposeful complexity of Soviet law made everybody a criminal by design, that lawful compliance with the state was impossible.

The entire staff of HLS should be scandalized at this accusation on their honor and professionalism. Those paying tuition should seriously be taken aback as well. What are they paying for?

HT: Pejman Yousefzadeh

Posted by TMLutas at 08:52 AM

June 17, 2004

Defining Brownshirts

Academia has always had a problem throwing out the brownshirts. Academic freedom cannot survive organized campaigns of violence and intimidation but cast the net too wide and you get official repression of dissenting view. With the controversy over Prof. John Yoo, it's starting to become evident that where to draw the line is once again going to be a problem.

What Prof. Woo did is provide legal advice, exploring whether or not the Taliban or Al Queda fell under the terms of the Geneva Conventions. The Geneva Conventions provide lots of different protections and they should be viewed as something of a reward for honoring the restrictions in warfare that qualify you for them. According to the petitioners, because Prof. Woo did not interject observations unrelated to the question (whether torture was ok), he should be drummed out of academia.

The petitioners are still (barely) on the civilized side of the brownshirt category in my opinion. How much further they can go before they cross the line would be an interesting question. With the long-established pattern of criminal conduct against conservatives at university being accepted by faculty and staff all over the nation, I don't think this will be an intellectual exercise for very long.

Update: If you're not that familiar with the torture memos, Prof. Yoo had a recent defense of them in the LA Times.

Posted by TMLutas at 10:34 AM

June 14, 2004

Drumming Someone Out of Academia

Juan Non-Volokh comments on Prof. Yoo's troubles at Berkeley. The problem seems to be that Prof. Yoo worked for the Bush Justice Department and issued a controversial memorandum on torture. This, according to student petitioners requires recantation or resignation. Juan Non-Volokh appropriately skewers the petitioners, demonstrating that even when granting the most favorable possible view of the facts, resignation is not an appropriate punishment and would damage academia more than cleanse it.

One thing that is not examined is what is the appropriate reaction regarding petitioners who assault academic freedom under a specious claim to improving academia? Should it instead be the petitioners who "repent or resign"?

Posted by TMLutas at 10:21 AM

October 06, 2003

Dealing with Biased Faculty

Steven Den Beste writes about an unpleasant experience a long time reader of his observed in a US military classroom. Porphyrogenitus observes that this is a complex problem that's been around for awhile but he doesn't have any solutions. Well, here's something, get help. Accuracy in Academia is an established group that has a good track record in both publicizing and taking further action to correct forced propaganda in the classroom.

I personally was frustrated enough to use their services once. There was no big scandal. Nothing made it into the papers. I just took the AiA newspaper and put a copy on the professor's lectern before class. He walked in, saw the paper, grimaced, and for the rest of the semester he taught that course without the propaganda. This was a band aid approach but it worked for me as I didn't have to hear about how great communism was from him (this was in the late 80s).

I was fully prepared for a big fight. If he had asked who left that paper for him, I would have stepped up and let him know. But he knew he was propagandizing and he knew he was being told to cut it out and just teach the course. If you don't make it a challenge to the authority of the teacher, very often, that's enough.

Posted by TMLutas at 02:47 AM