A Delaware newspaper recently ran two articles on a teenager's battle with his school over an anti-Bush t-shirt. I was in the midst of drafting a letter-to-the-editor about Saturday's article "School orders boy to cover his t-shirt" when an update, "Student's shirt spurs review of rules," appeared yesterday.
Today's paper featured an unsigned editorial ("School would be smarter to ignore student's T-shirt") which, while acknowledging that the district caused the "disruption," recommends ignoring sartorial controversies as a "powerful behavior modification tool." If the student in question were simply interested in garnering attention, this would indeed be a prudent course of (in)action. Doing so, however, would be an abdication of the school's educational responsibilities. In age of dumbed-down science education (supplanting evolution with pseudo-theories of "intelligent design") and dumbed-down health education (ignoring birth control and sexual orientation), can we really afford to dumb down civics education out of continued deference to the fragile sensibilities of the "ignorance is strength" crowd?
As the Supreme Court stated in their protection of a student's right to not salute the flag:
"Boards of Education...have, of course, important, delicate, and highly discretionary functions, but none that they may not perform within the limits of the Bill of Rights. That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes."
West Virginia v. Barnette, 319 US 624 (1943)
This sentiment was affirmed in the Tinker case, which protected the expression of dissent through wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War:
"Any departure from absolute regimentation may cause trouble. Any variation from the majority's opinion may inspire fear. Any word spoken, in class, in the lunchroom, or on the campus, that deviates from the views of another person may start an argument or cause a disturbance. But our Constitution says we must take this risk."
Tinker v. Des Moines, 393 US 503 (1969)
As the ACLU notes, "The First Amendment exists precisely to protect the most offensive and controversial speech from government suppression. The best way to counter obnoxious speech is with more speech. Persuasion, not coercion, is the solution."
As a result of the publicity garnered by the school's suspension threats, Mr. Truszkowski and his fellow students now have some first-hand experience with abuse of power and (attempted) suppression of dissent in public schools. One can only hope that this event fosters in them an appreciation for free speech, which - although frequently lauded in theory - is often abridged in practice.
Thanks for reading.
Quote of the Day:
"In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offense, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground: while unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them."
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)