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by Mike Masterson | January 24, 2021 at 8:47 a.m.

The principal at Cordova High School in Tennessee found himself on paid administrative leave the other day after his remarks in a nine-minute video to his homeroom class about the need for free speech in America. His remarks were made over the Shelby County School System's virtual learning platform.

Principal Barton Thorne was commenting on threats to free speech by social media platforms who chose to block President Trump from their sites.

In today's grossly partisan society, an educator addressing something as seemingly unradical as freedom of speech and expression to younger minds in one school district appears to be verboten.

"The principal at Cordova High School has been placed on paid administrative leave, pending the outcome of the review of the comments that were made," a school system spokesperson confirmed.

Shelby County Schools didn't discuss Thorne's specific remarks that triggered their ire. News accounts said several parents had complained about his approach toward informing their children on the right to free speech.

In his message, the administrator was specifically critical of the Jan. 6 rioting by some at the Capitol. His primary focus was directed toward the actions taken by social media giants.

He stressed his message wasn't about President Trump or his comments and actions, but rather about the freedom of Americans to speak their minds, even if others vehemently disagree with their views.

While some, including the Democrat-controlled House and its impeachment last week, have accused Trump of inciting the enormous crowd gathered at the Capitol toward insurrection and violence, others, including those who've actually read his comments (admirably published as a public service by this paper), don't see the former president's message as inciting riotous behavior.

As privately owned companies, the social media platforms are not required to publish any forms of speech with which its owners and managers disagree.

Unlike newspapers and broadcast stations (and thanks to protective federal legislation), the social media giants are not legally liable for what material they publicly circulate, or choose not to. This has unfolded although they began supposedly as objective public bulletin boards for the public.

As far as any incitement generated through free speech, there's the old saw that says our freedom isn't protected should we wrongfully cry fire in a movie theater. That's just common sense and applies to everyone regardless of political leanings.

"Individuals [on social media] who are inciting violence should be removed," Thorne told The Commercial Appeal. A supervisor asked him not to speak at length to the media about his message or the district's ongoing investigation, he told the paper.

The newspaper reported that Thorne told students that the "'marketplace of free exchange of ideas' was at stake, and that students should be concerned that there is not elected accountability for the social media and tech platforms and only financial power from users."

He emphasized he wasn't trying to tell students how to think, just to help them think for themselves.

The lack of accountability in restricting free speech in the U.S. "should be very chilling for you. That should be very frightening for you," he said.

Other recent examples of attempts to stifle or control free speech include:

A former Facebook executive called for conservative TV news outlets, including OAN and Newsmax, to be de-platformed by telecom giants.

A group of Harvard students is demanding that university revoke diplomas earned by Trump supporters. Publisher Simon & Schuster broke its contract with Sen. Josh Hawley to publish his book four months before its planned release. He quickly found a new publisher.

After a Democratic National Committee official called for plans to "deprogram" the 74 million Americans who voted to re-elect Donald Trump, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez picked up the ball, said federal funding for programs to "deradicalize," presumably Trump supporters, should be increased.

On and on it goes. Does truth matter in a nation of groupthink??

"There have been times, even in American history, where a small group of people decided what you could hear. You think about McCarthyism," Thorne said. "If you don't know about that, you can Google that or talk to your Social Studies teacher."

Totalitarian-style censorship is shocking stuff in our America. I recall a time in public school years when dedicated teachers openly expressed and encouraged class discussion on the strength of the First Amendment and the right of each citizen to openly express their thoughts without harming others.

As with most else, this issue at Cordova High School is bound to have supporters from either side casting judgment and smears across social media.

Sadly, the judgmental shamers clearly choose not to go into the world and treat others with the same kindness and respect with which they want to be treated.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at


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