Why is that when students enter a public school in this country, they lose their right to free speech? If anything, kids should be encouraged to say whatever stupid shit they want because then a teacher can say, ‘That’s a stupid thing to say, and here’s why.” If kids are denied the right to free speech, there’s no debate, and if there’s no debate, then nobody learns anything, and in an institution presumably designed to educate, that sure doesn’t sound right.
Take for example, the case of Morse v. Frederick. In 2002, the Olympic Torch Relay passed through Juneau, Alaska on its way to Salt Lake City. To celebrate this dumb event, students at Juneau-Douglas High School were allowed out of class and permitted to line up on either side of the street to watch the torch go by in what must have been an extraordinarily boring field trip. Such was the students’ disinterest they reportedly threw coke bottles on the ground, staged snowball fights, and got in minor scuffles while the school band played and cheerleaders performed. Then, as the news cameras honed in to record the torch passing, a group of idiot students unfurled a giant 14 foot long banner which read “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS”. The principal marched over and demanded the students put down the banner. Only one refused, a student named Joseph Frederick who heroically stood by his right to free—albeit unbelievably stupid—speech. The principal was unmoved by Joseph’s affirmation of the American constitution’s hallowed tenets and suspended him for ten days—a punishment which has always baffled me seeing as the kind of students schools punish by sending home are the ones who least want to be at school in the first place.
So now this kid Joseph Frederick evidently felt outraged that his sincere message of Christian generosity or perhaps his harmless non sequitur was being censored. He took his case to the Ninth Circuit Court which ruled that his rights had been violated. Then it went to the Supreme Court where the majority opinion was that “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” promotes drug use which is bad, real bad, so bad the school needed special powers to circumvent that darn first amendment in order to “send a consistent message against illegal drug use.” Frederick argued that he didn’t mean his message to be taken as advocating drug use. He meant it to be a random inflammatory nonsense phrase to get attention from the TV cameras. Nevertheless, the court ruled that it didn’t matter how Frederick meant the phrase to be taken, but how the school administration interpreted the phrase. Justice Roberts wrote that students simply don’t have the same rights as adults. Clarence Thomas went so far as to say that Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist. (the case that allowed students to quietly and unobtrusively wear arm bands to protest the Vietnam War) should be overturned. He said, “In the earliest public schools, teachers taught, and students listened. Teachers commanded, and students obeyed.” He went on to say that teachers act in the place of parents, and should therefore have the same degree of authority in regards to disciplining students. What an asshole. I almost expect him to continue, “If I could outlaw skateboards and hip hop music, I’d make it happen, but all I can do is legally force you to shut the fuck up. Did I mention I wasn’t democratically elected, have a lifetime term, and am under no obligation to anyone else for the crazy shit I believe? No? In conclusion, fuck you, kids.”
The problem with this ruling is that even if a student unobtrusively expressed a political opinion like, “Medicinal marijuana should be legalized”, because it has to do with illegal drugs and contradicts the school’s “coherent message”, that student could be suspended or expelled. Bam. Just like that. No debate. And who’s to say what other school sponsored messages might be deemed too crucial to allow dissent from students.
This sort of thing concerns me because in 2006, I wrote an underground newspaper called Free Porno Sex Dealy. It had a scantily clad lady on the front. Inside, however, the introduction revealed that there was no porn, but it was in fact a collection of funny (or maybe not) fake news articles meant to be taken by anyone with a trace of common sense as a fat pile of sarcastic bullshit. One of the articles talked about how there were so few gay students at the high school that the dating pool was more of a puddle. To remedy this, the students organized a mass transfer of gay students from other schools to our school. Another article referenced the brewing racism against Asians in regards to their perceived monopoly on academic achievement. It was about how Asian students were being sent off to a separate but advanced school where they could receive a more rigorous curriculum of schoolwork. I quoted the assistant principal as saying it was “because it worked out so well for black people in the 50s.” That’s pretty bad I guess. There were maybe ten or so other less offensive news articles I won’t go into, and I spent a lot of time working on it when I was supposed to be writing articles for the school newspaper.
I distributed a couple hundred copies through a friend of mine so I would have no connection to it. Still, the very day of distribution, the assistant principal, a man named Mr. Davis, called me into his office.
“Did you write this newspaper?” he asked and held it up for me.
“No,” I said.
“That’s funny. Because some students told me they were confident it was you who wrote it.”
“Yeah, I heard that too. I think it’s because I write for the school newspaper, so they just assumed.”
“Okay, I’m going to give you one more chance to tell me the truth. Did you write this?”
“No, I didn’t.”
Then he said, “If I find out you’ve been lying to me, I will make sure you’re off this campus, and if I see a second issue of this newspaper, make no mistake, you will definitely be expelled.”
Later, he came to my newspaper class and asked whether anyone was involved in a rogue sect publishing a racist pornographic hateful piece of trash. He recited quotes from various articles out of context and generally terrorized the class. Looking back, I wish I had released a second issue anyway. Students should be allowed to publish whatever monumentally stupid thing they want because in high school, kids are experimenting with boundaries, and they have to be allowed to cross them from time to time or they’ll never learn. According to Clarence Thomas, teachers are perfect sources of wisdom, infallible absolute authorities who students should obey or they will descend into anarchy. But if that’s true, why did I have a History teacher telling me the Civil War was about states’ rights and not slavery or another one tell me that all I needed to know about the American Revolution could be found in Roland Emmerich’s film The Patriot? Why did this same Assistant Principal Mr. Davis place restrictions on school organizations just so that the Gay Straight Alliance couldn’t meet on campus? Teachers and administrators can be just as stupid as the students, and that’s why free speech in public schools is so important.