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!"