The Freedom to Use Your Voice

Over the last few weeks I have been working with a residential day school for girls who have experienced trauma, teaching them about their First Amendment rights. The course is set up as a 10 week intensive to inform the students about their freedoms, as well as career and educational opportunities in journalism. In order to attend this special school however, students must have a referral from a school district they have been expelled from, or ordered by a court to be there.

It is challenging to work with students who have been through so much and who have experienced things in the foster care system or family settings that no person should have to go through. Nevertheless, it is these students who most desperately need to know their rights when it comes to using their voices.

Each week as I cover a new element of the First Amendment, hands go flying and the questions come flooding in one after another. We have spent a long time discussing the difference between public and private institutions because one student could not understand why she was kicked out of Catholic school for dying her hair purple if she was guaranteed the freedom to express herself. Another student struggled to grasp why graffiti on private property was illegal if other forms of artwork were protected speech. All of the students questioned how far the First Amendment can be pushed when it comes to threats and hate speech.

What I find most challenging is the rate at which the students are engaged in the material I aim to cover. On the first day of the course I came up with an activity where I handed out pipe cleaners and had the students bend them into shapes that represented their values or things that were important to them. At first, two of the girls were completely unamused and would not even touch the pipe cleaners, while most of the others got straight to work. As the two who sat out saw how creative everyone else was getting and joined in, one of the more eager students got frustrated at her creation and quit the activity, storming out of the classroom. We went around the room and shared what we created – drums, microphones, dollar signs – and everyone was able to connect their pipe cleaner creations to freedom of speech.

Some classes everyone is extremely respectful and engaged in the material. Other days they all interrupt each other, curse out the teachers and storm out of class. Even on the more challenging days, I know that these students are learning just by the sheer number of questions they ask. Many of these students feel abandoned or forgotten about, it is my hope that by the end of this course they feel that they have a voice again, and that they are informed enough to defend it.

Paula Pecorella is an Active Voice fellow. She studies journalism and political science at Stony Brook University in New York.