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Man sues over retracted invitation to speak at conference

By The Associated Press

12.16.01

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BOSTON — When author Alfie Kohn was invited to deliver the keynote address at an education conference in Northampton in May, he was happy to oblige.

But the state Department of Education was less than pleased with Kohn's topic: his opposition to high-stakes testing and the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Systems test.

A department official demanded that conference organizers retract Kohn's invitation, or else the state would withdraw $28,000 in funding for the conference. Organizers canceled Kohn's talk and a workshop he was to lead.

Kohn and the American Civil Liberties Union on Dec. 13 sued the department in Middlesex Superior Court claiming that former department official Susan Miller Barker violated Kohn's First Amendment rights and deprived others from hearing his views when she demanded the retraction of Kohn's invitation.

"It appears that the Massachusetts Department of Education is so fearful of criticism of the MCAS test that it's willing to suppress the expression of contrary viewpoints. That fact ought to alarm all of us, regardless of our position on the validity or value of the test itself," Kohn said.

Kohn, scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the two-day "Public Schooling in Western Massachusetts" conference, was invited to discuss his views on standardized tests, including the MCAS exam. High school students must pass the test to graduate. The conference focused on collaboration between public and charter schools.

Three other plaintiffs in the suit are people who wanted to hear Kohn but were unable to do so because the invitation was withdrawn.

Spokeswoman Heidi B. Perlman said the department had not seen the lawsuit but stood by the decision.

"He was invited to come in and speak on something that was completely off the topic, and that was something that we felt was completely inappropriate," she said. "This wasn't a conference about MCAS, this was a conference about charter schools. We simply didn't think that his presentation had anything to do with the conference."

The suit is seeking a court declaration that Kohn's rights were violated, an injunction to prevent the department from doing it again, and unspecified damages.

Sarah Wunsch of the ACLU said the state illegally stifled debate about an important policy issue.

"I have general concern about censorship by the government in general and a particular concern about the government censoring debate about what's going to improve schools," she said.

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