Poems and Poetry

Free Speech Canto XXXI | A Poem by Michael Ceraolo

Spring 1913
Fresno, California
Another inane high school assembly,
this one to explain why the administration
had acted to stop an interclass fight,
the main reason being student safety

A senior by the name of Earl Wooster
stood up in the assembly,
saying
:if the school board was so interested
in keeping the bones of the students
from being broken,
probably
they’d put some fire exits on the assembly hall”

The school administration had been planning
to do just that very thing,
and
could have announced its intentions,
but
bureaucrats have never worked that way
And
when a newspaper cited Wooster’s speech,
the administration asked him to retract his words,
suspended him when he refused to do so,
and
then expelled him and withheld his diploma
after he refused to apologize to them

Wooster filed suit for his diploma,
lost at trial,
and
on March 15, 1915,
lost on appeal
in the case known as Wooster v. Sunderland,
the judges saying
“The board of education
of a city high school
has inherent jurisdiction to expel a student”
because those students had
“the obligation of obedience to lawful commands”
as though
this was the military and not a public high school,
as though
the command to apologize was somehow lawful
And
they focused on Wooster’s supposed tone,
saying it
“was subversive of the good order
and discipline of the school”

No mention of the First Amendment,
probably
because at that time only subversives
thought it applied to state and local governments

No mention of the free speech guarantee
in the California constitution

No mention of the content of the remarks

No mention of the truth of the remarks
(nothing,
not even student safety,
was as important as keeping order)

And
no mention of,
nor protection for,
whistleblowers;
that would have to wait until such a concept existed

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One thought on “Free Speech Canto XXXI | A Poem by Michael Ceraolo

  1. Shannon McDowell

    Thank you for sharing your work, Michael. I enjoyed your poem and how it depicted this particular injustice from a hundred years ago. It provoked an emotional response within me of frustration and anger, and it reminded me that the power struggles we deal with today are nothing new.

    Best to you, Shan