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Forum on Common Core yields a lesson in free speech [Editorial]

Maryland educators no doubt learned a lesson Sept. 19: It's better to endure some discomfort at a public meeting when a concerned parent speaks out than endure the fallout when the protester is seized, shoved out of the room, handcuffed and arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer (a charge later dropped).

The incident, caught on camera and viewed widely on the Internet, began when Robert Small, of Ellicott City, spoke out at a meeting in Towson hosted by the state Department of Education regarding the new curriculum standards called Common Core in Maryland.

Small stood and interrupted Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance. The superintendent was conducting a question-and-answer session, but the format called for all questions to be written and submitted.

Small, whose remarks to, among others, state School Superintendent Lillian Lowery, appeared directed as much to the audience as to those seated on the dais. He complained that Common Core would lower educational standards and steer students into community colleges.

Dance tried to engage with Small, saying his questions would be answered. Small did not sit down and an off-duty Baltimore County police officer working as a security guard eventually hustled him out of the room as the parent turned to those in the audience and said, "Don't stand for this. You are sitting here like cattle. Is this America?"

Quite a spectacle.

It must be said that Small did speak out of turn and that Dance, Lowery and the others hosting the forum were no doubt caught off guard.

Yet therein lies the lesson. Aside from all the rhetoric about Constitutional guarantees of free speech, mere common sense suggests the whole flap could have been avoided if the panel had answered Small's questions head on, creating the appearance of an open instead of closed dialogue. Small deserved to be treated with more patience and respect than he got. "Hands off, let's talk" should be the default setting.

Regardless of the pros and cons of the new educational standards, we think many will recognize some kinship with the vociferous Robert Small. Call it our common core, and a hopefully a teachable moment should a situation such as this arise again.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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