It is hardly news when the Reagan administration tries to censor its own personnel -- including lifetime gags -- or when it tries to restrict the speech of the vast hordes of troublemakers beyond the moat.
No one was particularly surprised, for instance, when the Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported charges by some researchers that a panel of the Education Department, which meets in secret, intends to censor a number of federally funded publications by these researchers. Not to be approved for widespread distribution, say the critics, is research that conflicts with the administration's conservative priorities in schooling.
It is, however, news when an official of the Reagan team is himself silenced. Not by a grander member of the lodge, but by an outsider, a mere subaltern working for the state of Louisiana. In March, John D. Klenk, the U.S. Department of Education's director of planning and evaluation service, was scheduled to deliver the keynote speech at a conference in Baton Rouge on parental involvement in education. The cosponsors of the event were the U.S. and Louisiana departments of education.
Klenk claims that when he arrived the day before, Anne Stewart, an associate superintendent of education in the state, insistently informed him that he would have to "self- censor" his speech. Klenk had sent ahead some materials he wanted handed out at the conference, and in that 34- page collection of articles and statistics there were two references to tuition tax credits and the voucher system -- both of which Klenk and Ronald Reagan ardently favor. According to Klenk, Stewart told him those two topics could not be mentioned during his keynote address.
"She said," Klenk told me, "that the man she worked for, Tom Clausen, the state education superintendent, had some bills in the legislature that needed support from the Louisiana Association of Education." (That group is affiliated with the National Education Association and is the state's biggest teachers' union.) "It was made clear," Klenk said, "that if I went ahead and offended that union at this conference, its support for Clausen's bills could be jeopardized."
Stewart, on the other hand, said she had never told Klenk he had to omit all references to tax tuition credits and vouchers -- the very whisper of which grievously offends the Louisiana Association of Education. "I did ask Mr. Klenk to adjust his speech," Stewart said to me in reconstructing their conversation. "We talked for two or three hours," she continued, "as I pointed out to him that I would not want the teachers to be upset by a presentation that dealt solely with those two subjects." (Klenk says he never had any intention to focus on only those two inflammatory ideas.)
"I never said he couldn't speak," Stewart claims, "so long as what he said was in the context of research he told me he had showing that parental involvement in schools increased student achievement." But what if he didn't "adjust" his speech and, unedited, just walked out on the podium with all those bristling teachers in the audience?
"We had a very tight schedule," Stewart said, but then, on reflection, she assured me that "nobody would have stopped him."
I asked Klenk, why, despite the pressure, he had not gone ahead with the speech he had come to give. "I told Anne Stewart," he said, "that I could not censor myself, that I understood her position, and that since we were both adults, I would withdraw."
There are times when civility may be overrated.
The one bright note in all of this was the reaction of Carrel Epling, president of the state's second-largest teachers' union, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. She said: "Let him say what he has to say. We're being attacked all the time. We have to be able to defend ourselves."
In an editorial, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, said of the squelching of the keynote speaker: "It gives the state another black eye. It also is a terrible lesson (for the students) in the basic right of free speech."
As for the man who now knows what it feels like to have one's speech put on ice, maybe John Klenk can apply his new learning experience by finding out what's going on with that panel in the Education Department that meets secretly in deciding which research publications it will let the public get a look at. He might even give a concise speech about the alleged censorship there the next time he sees his boss, William J. Bennett.