I give a questionnaire each semester to my “Introduction to News Writing and Reporting” class to get to know students better.
“Who was your best teacher and why?” “What rumors have you heard about me?” “John Lennon or John Mayer?”
A few semesters back, I included this question: “What should happen to someone in this class who gets caught cheating?”
With the answers came the expected penalties such as a failing grade on the assignment, some kind of extra work involving ethical decision making and ousting the culprit from class.
But one student wrote this: “Off with his head!”
It seems some folks in Afghanistan took the student’s suggestion to heart. Media outlets report that a student journalist in Afghanistan printed a news story from the Web and discussed it in class. Reuters news service reported that the article offended some classmates, who found it critical of the “Koran.” They complained to school officials.
Reporters Without Borders told CNN.com that Sayed Perwiz Kaambakhsh, 23, went to trial behind closed doors on charges of distributing anti-Islamic propaganda. The tribunal returned a “guilty” ruling, and unless Kaambakhsh successfully appeals or the nation’s president overturns it, the student loses his head.
Some say the real cause for Kaambakhsh’s troubles come from his brother, also a journalist and apparently not a very popular one with some folks in Afghanistan’s religious community. But something tells me that Kaambakhsh might represent a bigger issue.
Reuters reports this: “Since the ouster of the Taliban's radical Islamic government in 2001, dozens of newspapers and other publications, some funded by foreigners, have sprung up in Afghanistan, which is going through a wave of press freedom unprecedented in its history.”
Freedom means power. Those who have it rarely want to give it up. All those in authority, including government, want to keep it, even our government.
This week, my students in “Press Law” discussed the roots of this thing called “freedom” and the Bill of Rights. They wrestled with the challenges it brings.
I took freedom out of the context of colonial history, fodder for essay exams and patriotic smack. I challenged students to embrace it, cherish it and fight for it. I told them that when some very forward-thinking patriots wrote that freedom into law, the battle to be free didn’t end.
My students, indeed all students, need to see the Constitution not as a historic relic but as ongoing marching orders from the founders to work each day in some way to maintain freedom, to better our country and to ensure that we leave it and a better world behind. We live in a world where most people measure their freedom in seconds.
We cannot let that become the way we live. Active participation in civic life can ensure it will not.
I ended class today by asking my students to consider how crazy the framers of the Constitution really were — how absolutely naive they were to believe that a government beholding to that kind of document could ever work.
“They were wackjobs,” I said, borrowing that word from a student who used it to describe a religious group that he considered on the fringe of decent behavior.
Yet, so far, the Constitution the “wackjobs” created — one based on freedom ensured by an informed citizenry — works.
For the sake of people like Sayed Perwiz Kaambakhsh, I hope it can work in other countries, too.