Law and Disorder

Two schoolchildren were carted off to a juvenile detention center Oct. 6 to serve a day of suspension for refusing to watch TV in their junior high classroom. Did it happen in Iraq? Nope. In Ohio. This is a new low for America.

Carlotta Maurer, 14, and D.J. Maurer, 13, of Perrysburg, Ohio, have religious objections to any form of television in a public classroom. This belief is bolstered by their mother, who is also a schoolteacher.

“Commercials are trying to lure children to buy things they don’t need,” Selena Maurer says. “Television is not conducive to spiritual growth, and my children don’t need a television to learn.”

Perrysburg Junior High School, just south of Toledo, is one of 12,000 schools in the country that receive content from Primedia’s Channel One in-school marketing program.

Perrysburg received the televisions from Channel One in return for showing a 12-minute news and current-affairs program each morning that includes two minutes of ads.

When the television is turned on during the homeroom period, at which students receive instructions for the day, Carlotta and D.J. walk out. When a teacher shows an educational video or a movie, the Maurer children leave the room.

School principal Patrick Calvin says Ohio’s truancy law requires students to stay in a classroom. He ordered the children to spend the day at a supervised school detention program, which just happens to be located at the Wood County Juvenile Detention Center in Bowling Green. “Yes, it does seem harsh,” Calvin says. “But if you are not in class, you are truant.”

Calvin says he offered Selena Maurer the option of having her children skip homeroom, but they can’t leave class every time a television is used for instructional purposes or otherwise.

Our school principal needs a history lesson. Let’s start with the First Amendment. It says you can’t force speech on anyone.

“The First Amendment protects the rights of advertisers to advertise, but it also protects the right of the American public to not listen to something they don’t like,” says John Kamp, a privacy counsel at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Wiley, Rein & Fielding.

Perhaps the school principal does not remember West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette in 1943. The Supreme Court struck down a law that required schoolchildren to salute and pledge allegiance to the American flag. Jehovah’s Witnesses objected to the law and sued. And won.

Commercial Alert, a public advocacy group, has sent a letter to Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, asking him to stop local school systems from punishing students who don’t want to watch commercial television. “The public schools ought to be a sanctuary from the noxious aspects of the commercial culture,” writes director Gary Ruskin.

Primedia’s Channel One Network says there is nothing in its contract that forces kids to watch television.

It won’t be long before the American Civil Liberties Union gets involved. Principal Calvin, you’re about to get a lesson in constitutional law. You may even learn the punishment for violating it.