Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Students Show More Sense Than Grownups In T-Shirt Case

Tyler Harper, a student at Poway High School in Poway, CA, wore a shirt to school which read "Be Ashamed, Our School Embraced What God Has Condemned'' on the front and "Homosexuality Is Shameful'' on the back. Not surprisingly, this provoked a response from some other students. They discussed the issue, stated their disagreement, and left it at that. No violence, no disruption, no breakdowns. "While words were exchanged, the students managed the situation well and without intervention from the school authorities. No doubt, everyone learned an important civics lesson about dealing with others who hold sharply divergent views.''

That is the assessment of Judge Alex Kozinski. Yes, the grownups turned this t-shirt into a federal case. Literally. The school banned the shirt on the grounds that it might injure homosexual students and might interfere with learning. When the case got to the notorious Ninth Circuit of the federal appeals court, the court sided 2 – 1 with the school's ban. Judge Kozinski issued a sharp dissent, partly quoted above.

Judge Kozinski is right. Tyler Harper expressed his views civilly. The other students, according to the record, responded the same way. Free speech wins. The marketplace of ideas is served. Students actually learn something in school.

The attempt to enforce anyone's political correctness in schools backfires. It teaches students that school officials are hypocrites when they talk about critical thinking, and cowards when they don't support actual critical thought. When the common schools are captured by one ideological faction, it fuels the movement to create separate schools and undermines support for the very idea of common schools and a common culture.

The remedy for speech you don't like is more speech.


SeanH said...

Freedom of speech has always been a tricky ethical issue for me, more so I think than it would be for an American. Here in the United Kingdom we don't have a legal tradition of free speech - we have the European Convention on Human Rights, which in 1998 was reinforced by the Human Rights Act, but those are recent developments.

In particular we have laws which specifically limit freedom of speech. Most notably, "incitement to racial hatred" is banned. People and organisations who make public statements which might incite racist acts will go to court. And this causes me crises of conscience. I'm aware that there have been mainly good consequences of this law, particularly in keeping extremist political parties like the BNP in check, and so I can't for the life of me decide whether principle or consequence should win out.

eustochius said...

Good analysis, Gruntled. I think what hooked me is when you said that to do otherwise would fuel the creation of separate schools.

Obviously though, school officials are responsible for maintaining order and for preventing harrassment so at some point. . . .

Even though I am in favor of gay rights, I think you're right about not letting one faction control the school. I certainly wouldn't want some rural district that actively promoted anti-gay speech either.

You're a good man, gruntled -- calvinism aside ;)