Guest Commentary

Mark Stegeman was ousted because of his actions, not because of his words

A recent Arizona Daily Star editorial about the removal of Mark Stegeman as president of the Tucson Unified School District governing board depicts Stegeman as a heroic figure who dared to speak and think freely in an oppressive environment. In this depiction, Stegeman was the victim of a cabal of thought-and-speech police, and his ouster was "a victory over free speech and freedom of thought."

In fact, his removal is a victory for free speech—in the boardroom and the classroom.

In our great democracy, speech and thought enjoy absolute constitutional protection. Actions do not. The Star editorial conveniently ignores Stegeman's discriminatory actions against Mexican Americans and supporters of Mexican-American studies (MAS).

On May 3, many of us were ejected from the school-board meeting, and several were cited, for the "crime" of invoking our rights of free speech and petitioning our government—that is, to speak in support of MAS.

Stegeman (and Superintendent John Pedicone) had more than 100 cops in riot gear there that evening to quash the free speech the public wanted to exercise. When Lupe Castillo asked for a bit of extra time to read a passage about nonviolent protest, Pedicone and Stegeman ordered her arrested.

People get to speak at TUSD board meetings in the order in which they sign up—a pretty democratic system. But at the May 10 meeting, Stegeman apparently didn't like the fact that pro-MAS folks had signed up to speak before anti-MAS speakers. So he simply re-arranged the speaker cards to put the anti-MAS speakers first to assure that they would get to speak within the "call to the audience" time period—and the pro-MAS people wouldn't.

On Aug. 9, a white guy was allowed to make an obscene gesture at a board member while attacking MAS and Mexicans, and making violent threats about "blood flowing" and impending "slaughter." After the board clerk informed president Stegeman that the speaker's time was up and that the speaker had violated board policy with his comportment, Stegeman chided the clerk for interrupting the speaker and allowed the white guy "one more minute" to finish his violence-laden diatribe. Let's review these actions:

A Mexican American asks for extra time to read a passage about nonviolent protest, and Stegeman orders her arrested.

Stegeman rearranges the speaker cards to assure that the only speakers will be anti-MAS ones.

Stegeman allots a white guy "one more minute" so that he can finish making threats of violence and bloodshed.

Then there's this action: On Aug. 19, under oath, Stegeman testified that the TUSD Mexican-American studies program is a cult.

In a MAS class that Stegeman visited, the students engaged in a bit of free speech: a hand clap—popularized during the Mexican-American civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s—that energizes people (in this case, to learn).

Stegeman testified that he "had an epiphany" upon hearing the clap that the MAS classes were a cult and "that what happens in (MAS) class is collective identity."

The energizing clap is the classroom counterpart of the pre-game rah-rah rituals that athletic teams (including those within TUSD) engage in to energize the players to go out and play their best.

Given Stegeman's avowed fear of students being seduced into embracing "cultish" behavior and "collective identity," we expected him to condemn in his testimony the rah-rah rituals of high school sports teams, and coaches' exhortations to their teams: There's no "I" in team! There are no star players here; we're a team; we win together; we lose together.

However, Stegeman did not condemn these collective-identity exhortations.

Stegeman's demonizing of MAS courses for behavior he excuses in other TUSD activities is not a lofty manifestation of freedom of thought or speech—it is a discriminatory act of selective enforcement.

Stegeman's actions manifested bias. They brought dishonor to the district. They were an embarrassment to many of his constituents. They were a disgrace.

That is why he deserved to be ousted.