A Tennessee principal was placed on paid administrative leave after warning students about the dangers of social media censorship. Principal Barton Thorne recorded a homeroom video on Monday, reportedly sharing his thoughts via the Shelby County Schools (SCS) virtual learning platform to address several Big Tech companies’ recent decisions to censor various individuals and platforms.
In a recording of the video since deleted from YouTube, Thorne emphasized the need to allow for free speech and a “marketplace of ideas.” He condemned the Capitol Hill riot and stated that his statements had nothing to do with President Donald Trump.
“[In] America and in democracies, we talk about the marketplace of ideas – but what happens when the marketplace of ideas becomes a forced monopoly?” asked Thorne. “What happens when you do not have dissenting opinions, when you do not have an exchange of competing ideas? How do you know if your ideas can stand on their own if there is no marketplace of ideas?”
Thorne warned that oppressive countries like China and North Korea restrict and eliminate the free exchange of ideas, thereby controlling their citizens. He likened Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter to forced monopolies. Additionally, Thorne referenced the McCarthyism communist witch-hunt and the 1993 Waco siege as tales of caution for allowing government officials or people in power to regulate individuals based on differences of beliefs.
“[W]hat if a different group comes into power, that no longer likes what I have to say, how I think, or if they begin to think that I’m extreme? At some point, anytime that we allow a group of people to tell another group of people, ‘You can’t think this, you can’t say this, you can’t write this, and you can’t go to places where it is talked about,’ then that’s just one step away from now that happening to you,” asserted Thorne. “[Y]ou may be in agreement with the people who are doing the filtering, but it’s just one moment away from somebody else being able to filter you. If they can do that to a minority or if they can do that to a powerful voice – what will stop them one day from doing that to you?”
Prior to the incident, Thorne had been the principal at Cordova High School for well over three years. He worked within the Shelby County School system for a little over 19 years – this approaching fall would mark his 20th year.
District spokespersons informed The Tennessee Star that the incident is being reviewed by the SCS Office of Professional Standards, and therefore they are unable to share further details about Thorne’s remarks. Although they mentioned “allegations and comments” raised against the principal, they didn’t provide further information as to what those were or who had raised them.
They also didn’t confirm or deny with The Star the involvement of the Office of Equity and Access in the investigation. The Office of Equity and Access told other reporters that sometimes staff should “temper back, recalibrate, [and] think about the message” they are sharing with students.
District spokespersons included a copy of an email from Superintendent Dr. Joris M. Ray issued the same morning as the controversial video. The email provided a diversity of resources for teachers to discuss recent events concerning the Capitol Hill riot and the election. Some resources included were from PBS, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE). Those sources included content that discussed how racial inequalities, systemic racism, and the Black Lives Matter movement all properly contextualized the Capitol Hill riot and presidential election.
“Students may be experiencing a variety of emotions about these events and need to fell their classroom is a safe place to express themselves,” wrote Ray. “Therefore, I encourage all school leaders to meet with their teachers and staff to review these resources and determine the most appropriate ways to embed teachable moments into lessons and classroom conversations. Additionally, teachers should also be encouraged to reference their training on social-emotional learning to support their efforts in creating a conducive environment for these conversations.”
Following controversy over his remarks and before taking administrative leave, Thorne sent an apology email for those who believed he’d “forayed too far into the political.” He added that he welcomed individual conversations on the subject.
“I had three people voice thoughts on my homeroom video from this morning. I know that is not a lot, but I also know that not everyone is comfortable with saying something,” wrote Thorne. “I try very hard not to trespass into political or religious issues in my ‘official’ capacity, and that was not my intention this morning. The fact that two of the people felt I did that means that I was not successful in expressing my thoughts.”
Thorne has been instructed by the school district to limit his interactions with reporters.
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