Thursday, 10:24 AM
State acknowledges violating First Amendment rights of testing critic
By Andrew Ryan and Peter Schworm, Globe Staff
The state Department of Education acknowledged in a letter that it violated the First Amendment rights of a standardized testing critic by preventing him from speaking at a conference, according to a court settlement made public today.
The critic, Alfie Kohn, had his invitation to speak at a 2001 conference in Northampton rescinded after education officials threatened to withdraw funding if the Belmont author delivered the keynote address. In a letter dated Nov. 8, Rhoda E. Schneider, the general counsel for the Department of Education, wrote that "vigorous debate about education issues is healthy and welcome."
"The Department of Education acknowledges that a former DOE official violated the First Amendment rights of Alfie Kohn to be heard and to communicate information, and of people to hear and receive information, at a conference in western Massachusetts in 2001," the letter says.
Kohn's lawyers also received an additional $37,500 in court costs and legal fees from education officials on top of the $155,000 a superior court judge awarded in May. In exchange, Kohn agreed to drop a request for $300,000 in court costs and fees. As part of the settlement, education officials also dropped an appeal of the judge’s decision.
"DOE broke the law in an attempt to silence a critic of its policies," Kohn said today by phone. "Their actions constituted an outrageous attempt to suppress dissenting views."
Kohn linked the department's decision to rescind his invitation with its unwavering focus on standardized tests.
"The same sensibility that tries to suppress dissenting views also says to students, 'You don't get a diploma if you don't pass this single test regardless of other academic accomplishments,' " he said. "In both cases, it's a heavy-handed attempt to ram through a particular position on education."
Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which helped represent Kohn, said she hoped state education officials "learn a lesson" from the outcome of the case.
"Government officials need to understand that policy is generally better when there is real debate and discussion and not censorship," Wunsch said.
Kohn was invited to speak at a 2001 conference that had a focus on standardized testing, which had recently become a requirement for high school gradation in Massachusetts.
Two months before the conference, a state education official sent an e-mail to conference organizers threatening to withdraw federal funds administered by the department unless Kohn was barred from speaking, even though the money was not slated to be used to pay speakers. The state official's e-mail said "it was stupid" to use the state funds to support a speaker who is "diametrically opposed" to the state's agenda, according to court documents.
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