By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director

A group of Albemarle County third graders got a lesson in free speech recently when a song they wrote and performed with Kid Pan Alley received nationwide attention for its content.  No, the song’s lyrics are not profane or pornographic, but they do obliquely address the Occupy movement and suggest that being part of the “99 percent” isn’t so bad.
Kid Pan Alley is an organization that fosters children’s creativity and imagination and encourages kids to work together to create music with the help of facilitators.  Students, with their parents’ permission, participate in the program in which they brainstorm song topics, then write the lyrics and put them to music.  At the end of the workshop, the students put on a concert for their school, parents and community showcasing their product.
On October 21, the third grade students at Woodbrook Elementary put on their Kid Pan Alley concert and that is when the trouble started.
The blog Big Government referred to the song in question as “Marxist rhetoric.”  Some critics suggested that the students did not write the lyrics themselves, but instead believe that adults’ personal political agendas intruded on the students’ creative process.  Yet, according to an Albemarle County schools spokesman, the students came up with lyrics after one student wanted to write a song about “having it all and losing it all.”
No matter how the events transpired, the situation seems to be a blown out of proportion.  The lyrics to “Part of the 99 percent” are age-appropriate and do not contain profane, violent, lewd or suggestive language.
So are bloggers suggesting that schools begin censoring for political content or a discussion of current events?  If so, it is a dangerous precedent to set and a lesson that should not be taught to the students.  Rather, the students should be learning about their First Amendment guarantee of free expression.
The school appears to have it right so far and has stood its ground against censorship amid a firestorm of criticism.  For example, the county’s school board chairman, Steve Koleszar is on the record opposing censoring students’ work for content.
As a private organization, Kid Pan Alley should not back down from their mission “to use the group songwriting process to inspire and empower children to become creators of their own music, not just consumers of popular culture.”   Should they cave now to hecklers in the blogosphere by being overly cautious with the ideas students come up with, they are likely to lose sight of their purpose.
Art Linkletter’s House Party with the segment “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” and then later the television show of the same name hosted by comedian Bill Cosby, illustrated that children pick up on everything in their surroundings and will often say funny and sometimes controversial things that adults wouldn’t imagine them understanding.
So it doesn’t surprise me that third graders made up a song about the 99 percent, or have a sense of being able to afford expensive items like yachts and planes, or that they’d value friends more than materialism.
Let’s give the kids some credit: they’re more attuned to their environment than we think.  While we’re at it, let’s teach them about the fundamental right to free speech and let them express themselves in song.