Civics Lessons

February 1, 2005

Brad Mathewson was more than a little surprised when school officials at Webb City High School in Missouri called him into the principal’s office for wearing an “offensive” T-shirt. After all, the shirt merely bore the name of a club from his previous high school in Fayetteville, Arkansas: “FHS Gay Straight Alliance.”


When he came to school wearing another shirt with a gay pride message, he was sent home. On his return, he noticed that administrators didn’t seem to have a similar problem with bumper stickers supporting the state’s anti–gay marriage amendment or T-shirts declaring, “God Made Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve.”


Mathewson’s experience, which has fueled a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is extreme but not uncommon. In a highly polarized time, pedagogues seem increasingly wary of the “disruptive” effect of student political speech.


David French, head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, cites a “dramatic spike in complaints” from high school and college students in the months preceding November’s elections, including reports of faculty tearing down students’ political flyers and schools banning guest speakers deemed “too partisan.” Students were forbidden to wear pro-Kerry pins or shirts to a Bush campaign appearance in the gymnasium of Richland Center High School in Wisconsin. Arizona’s ACLU affiliate reports that Arizona State University suddenly began enforcing a ban on banners in students’ windows when two roommates hung a Bush poster.


The most outrageous cases involve administrators seeming to take one side of a political debate. But far more common, according to French, are more neutral attempts to squelch political speech, prompted not by partisanship but by a general terror of the controversy robust political speech often entails.


In a landmark 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court put to rest the notion that “either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” ruling that only demonstrable disruption of a public school’s educational mission can be restricted. Many administrators seem all too ready to presume that anything that provokes disagreement is ipso facto “disruptive.” But if not speech that provokes disagreement, what was the First Amendment meant to protect?

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