Citizens protest speech decision

Demonstrators rallied at the Medford School District offices Friday to oppose Medford School Superintendent Phil Long's decision not to show President Barack Obama's address to schoolchildren live on the first day of classes.

"People here feel he was censoring the president," said Allen Hallmark, a Central Point organizer with Citizens for Peace and Justice.

Meanwhile, Long said Friday that the district was making plans to show taped versions of the speech to students in the district.

A small group of people first gathered at the district offices Tuesday after hearing of Long's initial decision against airing the talk. The issue became public late last week when some teachers complained to state Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland.

Hoping to attract more people and attention, organizers set a protest for Sept. 11, Hallmark said.

With signs chiding Long and the district for disrespecting the office of president and giving students a bad civics lesson, roughly 60 people clustered around the administrative offices across the street from South Medford High School.

"I've never seen such blatant censorship," said Medford resident R.C. Sinnott. "It's unacceptable, an erosion of our civil liberties and rights."

"These people are so afraid of change, they act absurd," he said of conservative critics who feared that Obama would promote a political agenda and take the federal government too far into public school business.

Sinnott, who said until he lost his job he never had time to protest before Friday, approached what he thinks is a serious issue with humor, wearing earphones and duct tape over his mouth, while holding a sign that said "Welcome to South Park." He compared Medford to the Colorado town in the animated movie, where parents blaming media influences for their children's bad behavior push for war against Canada.

Kathleen Frazier, a Medford grandmother of two preschool children, said she thought Long's published justification "sounded just like the Fox news pundits."

"He put his bias, his political agenda, in this decision," she said.

A group of South Medford High sophomores who joined the protest on their way back to campus after lunch also suspected the community's conservative bent had influenced the decision.

However, they noted that some classes had watched Obama's inaugural address live in January.

"We support free speech," said 15-year-old Kai Lewis-Kelly. "He's our president and we should hear him."

He had read a copy of Obama's speech and thought the motivational message about opportunities and responsibilities would be a good message for his fellow students to hear.

Not everyone agreed the speech should have been shown. Chad Dickson, the father of a South Medford freshman with autism, was less concerned about the message than its timing.

"It was just an off-the-shelf speech, but it was taking up time and space on that first hour of the first day of high school for my son," he said, while holding a paper plate proclaiming his thanks to Long.

He said his son needed to get a firm foundation finding his classes and learning his way around a new campus, and Long's decision had provided that.

Long, who came out to speak with the protesters and take their questions just before they dispersed, reiterated that the timing of the speech was a concern for him when he asked teachers not to show it live. He pointed out that only about 60 percent of the district's students were even in class that day, which was an orientation for seventh-grade and freshman students districtwide, as well as sophomores entering small schools on the South campus. Other upper level students didn't start class until Wednesday, and two elementary schools also started later in the week because of construction projects.

Hallmark acknowledged that he hadn't known all students weren't even in class when the president's speech aired, but said he was still disturbed by Long's statements about the need for a curriculum committee to vet the speech and auxiliary materials the Obama administration provided.

Long said a committee of social studies teachers had met this week to discuss the issue.

"Our encouragement is now to work the speech into the instructional plan for next week," he said.

Most students will see the speech in social studies classes, although it will be seen in English classes at some grade levels, he said. Elementary pupils and even kindergartners might watch excerpts, he said.

The district sent a letter home to all parents Friday stating the intent to make available to teachers a complete version of Obama's speech, recorded off C-SPAN, along with introductory remarks by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a student. The letter encourages parents to let their children watch the speech, but reminds them that parents can ask for an alternative assignment for any school activity they don't feel is appropriate.

Long said that the issue had been a learning experience even for him, although he stands by his decision.

He said that in response to protesters' questions about what he would have done differently, he would have consulted more closely with the board and other educators.

The president's speech didn't spark strong responses in most local districts.

Ashland and Central Point schools left the decision about whether to show the live broadcast up to individual teachers and principals. Schools in Eagle Point and Phoenix and Talent had orientations, conferences and open houses that day, with no regular classes scheduled, officials said.


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