Publication Date

April 1, 1992

Perspectives Section


“Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself,” said Salman Rushdie, the author condemned to death by the Iranian government for his “offensive” book. In a surprise appearance at a dinner celebrating freedom of speech at Columbia University in New York, he put his own plight in perspective, warning that the real danger of stifling freedom of speech is that ideas die: “Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless because they cannot think new thoughts.”

The Bicentennial of the Bill of Rights provided an occasion for all Americans to renew their appreciation of the “living” nature of a historic document and, at the same time, appreciate the fact that constitutional rights, such as the right to free speech, are not absolute, but continue to be debated and reevaluated. The extent to which citizens are protected by the Bill of Rights has long been a subject of disagreement even at the judicial level. Nevertheless, people need to be aware of the nature and limitations of their rights if they are to exercise them in a meaningful way. Low-income people, who are often undereducated, are at a serious disadvantage. A grant from the Bill of Rights Education Collaborative (BREC) enabled the Missouri Humanities Council (MHC) to offer programs to an audience that is difficult to serve: low-income, urban adults who have little or no access to continuing humanities education.

Our concept of the project Parents as Teachers of the Humanities (PATH): The Bill of Rights was based on the conviction that the role of the parent in a child’s educational development is critical—that parents are children’s first and most influential teachers. It is from parents that children first learn about themselves and the world around them; they influence not only what their children learn, but how they learn. Some parents are well-equipped to foster a love of learning because that was instilled in them during their childhood. Others, particularly parents from low-income or stress-filled backgrounds, may be less able to do so because of limited access to education.

The MHC was fortunate to have as a collaborator the Law and Citizenship Education Unit (LCEU) of the St. Louis Public Schools. Directed by Linda Riekes, the LCEU had sponsored summer institutes in 1988 and 1990 for St. Louis school teachers and librarians on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Many of these teachers and librarians participated in MHC’s PATH: Bill of Rights project. We also engaged historians, political scientists, and scholars in jurisprudence who had worked enthusiastically with the teachers and who were eager to talk with our target audience of adults.


Program Content

Deciding on program content involved some soul-searching. One of our scholars wondered whether the Bill of Rights might be an irrelevancy to the lives of our target audience of parents/guardians. To the extent that the Bill of Rights affects their lives, it might even appear to be a negative rather than a positive force. He pointed out, for example, that in contrast to the constitutions of other countries, ours does not say that the government must actively provide food, shelter, clothing, welfare, minimum wage, health care, or even education. For people in our audience, many of whom struggle to pay for housing and food, how inspiring would it be to know that the government can’t take away the rights of criminal defendants?

One of the teachers on our planning committee raised the possibility that parents might even be hostile to most Bill of Rights applications to real problems. Their children certainly have a visceral, antiauthoritarian reaction to police who stop students in cars, to school principals who search their lockers, and to those who censor school newspapers, suppress rap lyrics, and practice corporal punishment. But their parents might well be on the side of the authorities and against notions leading to antiauthoritarianism or even anarchy. Might we run a risk of setting up parents versus kids? Some of our teachers also reminded us that more than a few parents may raise their children in a frankly authoritarian manner, using whacks rather than words in response to a child’s attempts at autonomy.

We saw that we had both a challenge and an opportunity in the PATH workshops to present alternatives to authoritarianism, both at the level of government and at the personal, family level. We reasoned that for both parents and children, it might be beneficial to see that constitutional rights are not unchanging, but are subject to reinterpretation. Focusing on issues relevant to our target audience, our workshops explored the meaning and underlying principles of the Bill of Rights through case studies, examination of the document’s language, and a mock trial.

The opening workshop featured a skit written by Roger Goldman of the St. Louis University School of Law, in which the Bob Kramer Marionettes (a St. Louis company) played members of a rap group called Three Dead Sailors (shades of 2 Live Crew) and sang “No Way Momma,” a sexist, racist song, at Club Sleaz-O. They were cut short by the puppet police, after which they were brought to trial in puppet court. In the ensuing discussion, led by Professor Goldman, people raised as many questions as they answered in attempting to decide the fate of the rap group. They acknowledged that offensive language can indeed hurt people, often deeply. But, they asked, how offensive does speech (or an idea) have to be? If community standards of obscenity determine laws regulating speech, shall we have a “sin” state and a “moral” state? In discussing the effect of obscene language on children, several declared that parents have a far greater responsibility than the courts. “The parent is the greatest influence on the child,” many said. “What about the language parents use in their home?” Throughout, the value placed on individual freedom and responsibility was striking.

In the following workshop, Wayne Fields of Washington University, Barbara Graham of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Barbara Woods of St. Louis University engaged in a panel discussion on the actual words of the Bill of Rights. Observing that the document’s eighteenth-century language must be applied to problems of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the panel of scholars examined particular aspects of that language. What, for example, is “speech”? Flag burning doesn’t involve words, yet it is “expression.” Does the right to bear arms extend to the right to have a nuclear device in one’s basement? What constitutes a “religion”? Does freedom to believe guarantee freedom to practice a religion?

The panelists described court cases that sought to clarify the meaning of the words, and also cases in which the courts took a second look and revised their opinion. It was certainly a revelation to the audience that the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group with neither the size nor the popularity to influence the political process, succeeded in using the courts to effect change: over a forty-year period they brought eighty cases to the Supreme Court and won seventy-five of them! There was also attention to the “silences” in the Bill of Rights: the right to privacy is not mentioned, nor is the right to marry. There is not even specific declaration of the right to vote.

In a workshop devoted to the concept of the right to privacy, Washington University historian David Konig noted that the Fourth Amendment reflected a principle, based in hundreds of years of English law, that “a man’s home is his castle.” The English government, however, was very slow to recognize the necessity of fair and equal application of this principle. Arbitrary search and seizure were commonplace in England, usually of Catholics (who were viewed as subversive) by Protestants. In contrast, the Founding Fathers believed that citizens of the new republic were entitled to fair and equal protection from such governmental abuse, and the result was the Fourth Amendment. Professor Konig set forth the problem of ensuring personal privacy while preserving the public’s right to prevent and control criminal activity. A skit (written by Constitution scholar Roger Goldman) and performed by himself and participating teachers and librarians, dramatized random drug testing, automobile searches, locker searches, house searches, and payment of cash rewards to informants. It illustrated the potential for abuse of power by governmental agencies, countered by the serious problem of drug abuse throughout our society. The ensuing discussion raised many questions that could not be answered definitively, and showed once again the fragility of the concept of “rights.”

Our final workshop was held on December 14, 1991, the eve of the actual 200th “birthday” of the Bill of Rights. It dealt with freedom of the press and access to sex education information. A mock trial was staged with H. Hamner Hill of Southeast Missouri State University, Leland Ware of the St. Louis University School of Law, and the teachers and librarians acting as attorneys and witnesses. At issue was an ad for Planned Parenthood that had actually appeared in a St. Louis area school paper. “Don’t just say NO. Say KNOW,” it read, and encouraged students to call Planned Parenthood for birth control information. The trial explored whether or not the ad interfered with family religious beliefs; violated a school regulation regarding controversial material; gave the appearance of school endorsement of sexual freedom; and affirmed the value and appropriateness of controversial issues in an educational setting.


We were enormously pleased and proud that close to eighty adults and almost as many children came to each workshop. We attribute the strong turnout to the fact that we addressed audience needs that are not ordinarily associated with humanities programs. The most important of these are transportation, child care, and food. St. Louis lacks a comprehensive mass transit system, and multiple bus transfers are often required to reach any desired destination. Many low-income parents do not own cars and cannot afford baby-sitters. Thanks to the BREC grant, we were able to provide taxis, child care, and food for adults and children. The involvement of teachers and school librarians was also crucial in recruiting the audience: they personally contacted the parents of their students, encouraged them to attend the workshops, and convinced them that they would have a marvelous experience. Over half of the participants at each program were African-American. There was a good showing of men; some husbands and wives attended together. Alternatively, the husband came to one workshop and the wife came to another.

The following comments give some idea of the general enthusiasm:

“I thought it was wonderful. I thought it was going to be boring, but it was very informative.”

“I could see a whole series of these gatherings—each one focused on a different amendment. What a way to get grass roots involvement in our government!”

We were also delighted by several complaints that the workshops were too short.

That many questions were raised without being definitively answered was unsettling to some people in the audience: “I didn’t come for debate—I came for information and ways to pass information on to kids,” wrote one person on an evaluation form. We did try to convey, however, that one of the greatest values of a humanities program is that it encourages people to entertain questions without necessarily arriving at answers. Indeed, another participant wrote: “This workshop was interesting and it made me more aware of the rights I have under the Constitution, and that everything is not black and white, but maybe a little gray.”

Ripple Effects

The PATH workshops enhanced the relationship between parents and the school itself: “I was glad I came out. I’d like to have been more in on PTO meetings than I have. At my next session I will try and have more to say.” A component of each workshop was a planning session for a follow-up program at the school. Parents were very enthusiastic about the possibility of inviting some of the scholars to school workshops. Other suggested follow-up activities included poster contests, in-class presentations, and debates.

An unsung collaborator in the PATH project was the St. Louis Public Library. Not only did it provide space and equipment for three of the four programs, but it seized the opportunity to introduce children (for whom the PATH project provided supervision) to its treasures. Middle school children, for example, engaged in a “scavenger hunt” through a variety of reference sources in an attempt to answer a list of twenty intriguing questions. Elementary school children were enthralled by very fine storytelling. The children also got a tour of the library, signed up for cards, and were given books. It is important to bear in mind that many of these children were visiting a library for the first time.

There is no question that many wonderful things emerged from the PATH project. The format provided an outlet for as much creativity as program participants wished to express: this project featured lecture and panel discussions, skits, a puppet show, and a mock trial. The subject focus was the Bill of Rights, but the format could embrace virtually any topic. Not only were the audiences enthusiastic, but they engaged in thoughtful, sustained discussion rarely achieved in public programs. Finally, through the PATH workshops, we responded to the groundswell of concern regarding the importance of parental involvement in the education of their children.

Rheba Symeonoglou is assistant director of the Missouri Humanities Council.