Worth Fighting For
by Carrie Addington in This Active Life (NEA), 2007
Cissy Lacks went from the classroom to the courtroom to fight for First Amendment rights. She reflects on her historic case and where we are today.
In the mid 1990s, Dr. Cecilia (Cissy) Lacks was an award-winning and appreciated English teacher who had taught more than 20 years in St. Louis ,Missouri ’s Ferguson-Florissant School District . She’d been named by the Dow-Jones Newspaper Fund as one of the top student newspaper advisors in the country, and her students had won awards for journalism and creative writing.
But her name would soon be broadcast across the country for quite a different reason. She was fired from Berkeley High School in March of 1995 when administrators charged that she had violated the student code when she allowed students to write and perform dramatic works that used obscenities. That’s the short version of a complex, five-year legal struggle that signaled Cissy Lacks’ transition from teacher to First Amendment advocate. The jury found in her favor but its decision was later reversed by a court of appeals.
Now, more than a decade after the case began, "This Active Life" asked Lacks, “Was it worth it?”
“For sure it was worth it,” Lacks said without hesitation. “Standing up for what I knew was sound teaching was important, and making everything public was important, too.” Lacks was hailed a First Amendment hero on evening news programs and honored with the prestigious PEN First Amendment Award for the lengths she went to defend the creative process she had fostered in her classroom. “One of the legacies [of the court case] for me personally is that my integrity remained intact.”
But she fears that teachers and students’ freedom of expression are still very much at risk in today’s schools. “I think fear in classrooms has gotten worse,” she said. “The most unfortunate result is that there is a lot of self-censorship among teachers and students.” Ultimately, Lacks added, students’ education will suffer in a censored environment. “We don't help students become good decision-makers or critical thinkers that way. From a civics perspective and as a learning technique, censorship and self-censorship are educationally unsound.”
After losing her job and the court case, Lacks didn’t return to the classroom. While Lacks concedes there’s no way to replace the satisfaction of having a daily impact on students’ lives, she has found a way to use her writing ability in a new educational capacity. She now works with Dr. William Catalona at the Urological Research Foundation (URF) to support research and patient education about prostate cancer. Lacks is pleased to be reporting on the latest research on the genetics of prostate cancer in a publication called Quest (free subscriptions are available by signing up at: www.drcatalona.com ). “The educational work I do for URF is a way of changing men’s medical health worldwide. It’s absolutely inspiring and satisfying work.”
Cissy Lacks wrote about her legal case in a thoughtful essay, “Words Can Never Hurt Me”:
“Why I became a lightning rod is connected to a complex set of factors involving race, school politics, cultural struggles, teachers’ roles, authority concerns, denial mechanisms, power issues, and numerous other influences and stresses in our society.
No matter what circumstances were stirring the pot, one premise should have been of the utmost importance: Teaching students to understand voice would help them know who they were and that self-knowledge would enable them to find a place for themselves in the world.... Because some people might not like hearing what the students had to say, or how they said it, was no reason to stop the conversation. The entire country seemed to recognize the importance of this issue.”
From Silent No More: Voices of Courage in American Schools , edited by ReLeah Cossett Lent and Gloria Pipkin. Published by Heinemann, 2003.