Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Crackdown on the Right to have Radical Ideas

Mark Oyama graduated from Iolani, that prestigious and posh private school in Honolulu, then earned his bachelor’s degree at the highly-competitive and world-renown California Institute of Technology. He studied mathematics there. He came back to Hawaii and earned a master’s degree in physics. When he finished that he enrolled at the University of Hawaii’s teacher certification program.
This program is the only one available in the islands. It is designed to train Hawaii’s teachers. In one of his classes on educational psychology, Oyama was assigned to write an essay after watching a video called “Growing Up Online.”
In an essay, he wrote that “Personally, I think that online child predation should be legal, and (he) find(s) it ridiculous that one could be arrested for comments they make online.” He went on to write that there should be no age of consent.
That statement caused a stir in the program and he was called to talk to one of his educational professors. He told the professor that in his own personal view, there was nothing wrong with a consensual sexual relationship between a minor student and an adult teacher. He added, of course, that he understood that that is not the law and he would obey it and report such conduct if he saw it. He—like ancient Greeks apparently—just thought that there was nothing wrong with that kind of relationship. His professors were of a very different opinion.
School officials also had problems with Oyama’s viewpoints on students with disabilities. In another course, Oyama wrote that in his view, that some students with disabilities should not be included in the classroom and that students with learning disabilities may be “fakers.” He wrote that some disabilities weren’t disabilities at all and were “rather the crude opinions of psychologists and psychiatrists.”
His professors in the teaching certificate program were far from impressed. When Oyama applied for further education toward the teaching certificate, he was denied. Although the University told him the denial was based on multiple factors, it centered on his views toward students with disabilities and his views on sexual relations with minors. These views were “not in alignment” with teaching standards.
Ultimately, Oyama sued the University on the grounds that the denial of the certificate violated his freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment in the United States Constitution. The lower court disagreed and ruled in favor of the University. Oyama appealed to the federal court of appeals in the Ninth Circuit.
This week the federal appeals court issued its opinion this week and essentially held that the denying Oyama’s application based in large part on a classroom discussion and essays he wrote did not violate his First Amendment rights. The appellate court was of the view that Oyama’s opinions showed that he did not “absorb” the necessary teaching standards and indicated that he was not likely to comply with those standards.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened in Hawaii. The case reminds me of a very old proceeding that occurred in Honolulu during the tumultuous territorial days.
John Reinecke was a linguist and scholar at the University of Hawaii—the same institution that threw out Oyama. And just like Oyama he held opinions and viewpoints that were controversial and unpopular in his day.
Reinecke was very outspoken about the labor movement. He believed strongly in the power of unions and the worker’s right to organize. He associated himself with activists and progressives of his time. Although these views today are far from earth-shattering and are even guaranteed in our State Constitution, Reinecke held these views in the late 1940s—when politicians and businessmen, particularly executives for large sugar companies, were afraid of Communist bogeymen.
The territorial Department of Instruction took action against him and his wife for holding these views. Reinecke’s position on collective bargaining, civil liberties, and social democracy could be a cover for Communist tendencies at the height of the Red Scare. A very public hearing was held and the department concluded that even though his opinions had nothing to do with his academic discipline and teaching, it was too treacherous and could lead to the indoctrination of young minds. He lost his teaching job and dismissed in 1948.
Decades later long after the hysteria against a perceived threat from socialism had passed, he was reinstated and his name was cleared. The Department of Education made a public apology.

Ironically (and schizophrenically), we are now living in a time where an institution of higher learning recognizes and condemns what it did to the Reineckes, but vigorously defends its actions against Oyama in federal court. As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.