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Sit down and shut up

By Judith Scherr, Daily Planet editor
Friday October 19, 2001

If the debut of the 21st century doesn’t become known as WWIII – and I pray that it doesn’t – I fear pundits will call it the age of “sit down and shut up.”  

Here at the Planet we’ve been hearing an awful lot of that lately. 

Take the case of the ill-fated Common Ground field trip. In case you missed it, Common Ground’s a small school inside Berkeley High that teaches about the environment. 

In its wisdom, the mini-school took some 330 kids to Yosemite with about 25 chaperones. According to the folks in charge of the concession at Yosemite and teachers and parents, the teens disrupted the campground, smoked marijuana, threw rocks and, the concession folk say, got kicked out. (Others contend they left early voluntarily.) 

Worse yet, according to a number of angry letters we got here at the Planet, was that we reported it. We were ruining Common Ground’s reputation and the future of small schools at BHS, we were told. 

Don’t write, don’t tell.  

Sit down. Shut up.  

Write about the flowers that push up through the cracks in the sidewalk and forget about the cracks that trip people up. 

But, I’ll credit the Daily Planet and reporter Jeffrey Obser with a role in spurring the adults to hold a meeting to discuss what happened on the Yosemite trip and how to avoid the pitfalls the future. Kudos to us all. And the First Amendment. 


Another thing about school’s is scaring me – that the art of critical thinking’s getting lost in a nationwide stress on testing. Shouldn’t our kids think? Shouldn’t they question? 

Even the school board seems to think asking hard question’s not a very good thing to do. 

Board members and a few of their apologists were very unhappy when we wrote about the board’s executive session meeting at the new superintendent’s house, where the public could not comment and which was inaccessible to those who use wheelchairs. 

No one said our accusation of violation of open meeting laws was inaccurate. No one asked for a correction. They just say we shouldn’t have talked about it; we need to support the new superintendent, they said. 

SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP. Fill in circles. Mark the Xs. And don’t think. And don’t question. 


Talk about secrets. It seems the school board’s known since August that ex-Principal Frank Lynch was job hunting. Well they all knew it, so you’d imagine they talked about it among themselves. If they did, they violated open meeting laws. It was never on any agenda I’ve seen. 

Because it was never discussed in public, the high school community is in shock at Lynch’s abrupt departure.  

Kids are already reeling from the instability that’s entered all our lives in the era of post Sept. 11. They’re in a high school with accreditation problems, a high school that has never been able to figure out how to meet the needs of its most needy students – and now they’ve got no one at the helm. 

You’d think that when the newspaper – not the Planet, by the way, but the award-winning student newspaper the Jacket - broke the story of Lynch’s plans to get out, the school board would have met in emergency session and quickly reassured parents and kids that the post would be filled. 

If the gang of five are talking about how to replace Lynch, none of us know. And we’re going to keep asking the question until we get some answers. 


Then there’s the progressive majority City Council that got a really bad case of “sit down and shut up” when it passed a redistricting plan without a document explaining exactly what the new boundaries would be. 

I don’t know if there was a formal Brown Act violation – some say three “progressive” councilmembers had discussed the plan; some believe the plan was also communicated to a fourth (four councilmembers knowing the plan would not constitute a formal Brown Act violation) and some say a fifth councilmember knew the specifics of it as well, which would constitute a violation. 

But the biggest violation is the spirit of a truly open meeting, where the council votes only on things it thoroughly understands and where the public has a chance to look at what the council is considering. 

Should we all just sit down and shut up? 


And what about these difficult times of war? 

Much of the mail I’ve got (most from out-of-towers with no phone number for verification), say that the councilmembers who call for a stop to the bombing are traitors. Some of the mail councilmembers have got is very hostile, even threatening.  

(I should underscore that at the Planet we have also received thoughtful letters on both sides of the war debate as well.) 

Sit down and shut up, the e-mails say – less politely. Love it or leave it. The war is not debatable.  

But they’re wrong.  

The rule must be: speak out, even if you are as alone as Barbara Lee was when she voted against giving the president the power of war. Speak out, even if you are a Republican in Democratic Berkeley. Councilmembers must continue to speak their minds – on all sides – even in the face of angry e-mail campaigns. 

Stand your ground. The right to dissent is among the most prized rights we have in our country.  

We at the Planet will continue to report the facts as we see them. We won’t sit down. 

Or shut up.