Alfie Kohn, a prominent author and speaker in the field of education, is, among other things, a critic of standardized testing. Last week he won his lawsuit against the Massachusetts Department of Education, which arranged for him to be disinvited to give a keynote address at a conference in 2001. Why? The judge agreed with his contention that the DOE told conference organizers to prohibit Kohn from speaking because his opposition to standardized testing was ‘diametrically opposed to the state’s and the board of ed’s legislative and policy agenda” (as an e-mail sent from a DOE official at the time put it). Although Kohn was paid his fee, he sued because the state government was censoring criticism of its program.
Minow: Congratulations on your First Amendment victory! Tell us a little bit about your case.
Kohn: Thanks. Back in 2000 I was invited to deliver the keynote address at an education conference in western Massachusetts that was bringing together people from regular public schools and people from charter schools to address issues that they both faced. The organizers decided that one of the issues they faced was the pressure on students and teachers caused by MCAS, the state's standardized test, and they asked me to speak on that topic. A few months after I'd received a signed contract, and arrangements for my talk were in process, I was called back and told that my services would no longer be required. I later learned that the state department of education, having discovered that I'd been invited, basically threatened to shut down the conference if I was permitted to speak -- even though a grant from the state helping to fund the event wasn't even paying for the speakers' fees. When the story broke, the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU got in touch with me and suggested that this was a violation of my right to speak as well as the right of those attending the conference (several of whom joined me as coplaintiffs) to hear me. And the judge agreed.
The way I see it, just as standardized tests interfere with meaningful learning, so the DOE attempted to interfere with a free exchange of ideas about education. Happily, the court caught them at it, determined that they'd violated the Constitution, and will now issue an order to stop them from trying to do it again.
Minow: Why did you go through the hassle of pursuing this lawsuit for five years? Did it take a lot of time, worry and money?
Kohn: Time? Yes. These things move at a glacial pace. Worry? Some. Money? Happily, the ACLU found two terrific attorneys who had been freed by their firm to do pro bono work. And it now appears that the judge will make the state reimburse us for fees and expenses, which will help to fund the ACLU's important work on other cases to protect the Bill of Rights during these perilous times.
From my perspective, the effort was well worth it. It's an important victory for everyone who cares about free speech, regardless of whether they share my concerns about the destructive effects of standardized testing.
Minow: Do you have a new book coming out that we can help you plug?
Kohn: So nice of you to ask! Yes, it's called The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, and it will be published in the next couple of weeks.
Minow: Thanks so much for talking with us today.
Kohn: No, thank you.
Minow: No, I insist. Thank you.
Kohn: No, no... [conversation terminated]
To read a press release describing the case, go to http://www.aclum.org/news/08.01.06.Kohn.pdf
To read the decision itself, go to http://www.aclum.org/news/08.01.06.Kohn_Memo.pdf