Free Speech
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by Brian Mos

As you may have heard, DeLaura Junior High School has had some problems with "offensive" ideas and religious beliefs. The school suspended a student for wearing an upside down cross pendant and all black clothing to school. He meant for his clothing to show his disdain for organized religion. The principal said that the clothing was disruptive and distracting, even though it was also passive and quiet. Any situation like this always brings up the 200-year-old argument over what the First Amendment means and when it applies. Does the First Amendment protect "offensive" or "obscene" speech? Does the First Amendment cease existing when the government has a "compelling interest" to violate it? Does "protecting the children" count as a "compelling interest?" Do students and teachers have the right to free speech?

Lately, I have heard some nasty rumors about this issue. The worst one was that the Supreme Court has decided that we have no rights. This is untrue. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students and teachers do indeed have First Amendment rights (Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 1969). The First and Fourteenth Amendments protect speech that is quiet, passive, and not disruptive.

This leads to the question, "What is disruptive?" Nearly anything can disrupt someone. We need to decide whose problem this is. For example, most would agree that a person wearing a hat with blinking lights and noisy bells is at fault for "disrupting" his neighbors. On the other hand, if a person wears a printed message on his own shirt, around his own neck, or in another non-intrusive manner, then there is no reason to punish the wearer. Whoever "feels distracted" has the option of ignoring that visual display of speech and paying attention to the teacher.

A person who "feels offended" by an idea being expressed is at fault if he causes a disruption by verbally or physically attacking the person expressing that idea. No one should be censored because other people cannot handle his idea.

Fortunately, we have not had a big incident at Rockledge High School (RHS) like the problem at DeLaura (that I know of). We do have an overly intrusive dress code, a warning of possible danger in the future. We must keep in mind that we DO have rights. We must remind people of this when our right to free speech is threatened. Paranoia over crime and a general moral decay has caused people to try desperate, and stupid, measures. People have been talking about uniforms and stricter rules. You will never hear people considering whether or not the ends justify the means.

Can we improve the future of our country by destroying the ideas on which it was founded? This is an important question to ask yourself before you say the most un-American phrase in U.S. history: "You can't say that!"


This page was last updated 07/02/00 01:50 PM