What right to free speech?

With the campaign season in full force, all you need to do is look at facebook to see folks screaming about what someone else is saying about politics. You’ll see name-calling and insinuations. You’ll see folks threatening to ban posters on their wall, or on their blogs, if they don’t agree with them. That’s fine. That’s all part of social media. It is also part of that pesky little guarantee we have in the First Amendment — freedom of speech. And yes, the sarcasm was on for that last statement.

There are limitations to free speech. Most of us are familiar with at least some of them. You can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. Pornography — whatever it is, although we are supposed to know it when we see it — doesn’t enjoy the same first amendment protection as, say, our daily newspaper. These limitations, and most others, are meant to protect us from danger of one sort or another.

That brings me to one of the reasons for today’s post. Yesterday, an article caught my attention. As I read it, I was both proud and infuriated. I was proud because an 11-year old had taken the initiative to do something to support his mother, who happens to be battling breast cancer. I was infuriated because of actions taken against him by the principal of his school.

The setting is Indiana, pretty much the heartland of our country. Eleven year old Trevor cut his hair into a mohawk with a pink ribbon on the side to support his mother (who was released from the hospital after surgery yesterday). The problem came not when Trevor was sent home because his haircut violated some school policy because, well, he wasn’t. In fact, I’ve seen nothing to indicate his haircut was against school or district policy.

No, the problem came when the school principal told him that, because of his hair, he couldn’t try out for the basketball team.

Here’s this kid who wants to make a positive statement of support for his mother and he is being penalized. Remember, he’d apparently been allowed to attend school all day without being in violation of any school policy. “I was walking out to my bus and she stopped me and told me that I couldn’t try out for basketball with my mohawk,” Trevor told RTV6. That, to me at least, makes it pretty clear no one had objected until after school was out.

Needless to say, Trevor’s dad was more than a little upset. He did what so many do these days — he went public, taking what happened into the world of social media. Suddenly, the principal wanted to talk to him and Trevor. Oh, yes. With the public eye firmly fixed on her, she apologized to Trevor, told him he could try out for the basketball team and even asked if he’d lead a new student organization designed to raise money to fight breast cancer.

Don’t get me wrong. If Trevor’s haircut violated some school policy, then this goes beyond his right to free speech. Rules are rules, especially in school, and should be enforced. My problem comes from the fact that he’d apparently been allowed to attend school all day without anyone saying there was a problem with his haircut. Then we have the fact that the principal doesn’t appear to have asked him why he had chosen that particular cut and color.

I applaud Trevor for facing what could have been some cruel teasing on the part of his fellow students — let’s face it, middle school kids can be cruel and a boy showing up with pink hair and a bow makes a seemingly easy target — to show support for his mother. I applaud his parents for raising such a son.

But Trevor’s story isn’t the only case concerning free speech in our schools to catch my attention over the last twenty four hours. The second one came to my attention this morning. Again, it is set in a place that should be the heart of Free Speech: Philadelphia. You know, the city where our fight for independence from England began, the home of the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, etc. Unfortunately, it seems that the schools there must not be requiring their teachers to understand either free speech or the fact that teachers shouldn’t be bullies.

In this case, a 16-year old high school sophomore came to school wearing a Romney/Ryan tee shirt. Just as with Trevor, this young woman went to class and, as the day progressed, nothing indicated there was any problem with her shirt. No teacher said she was violating the dress code and she had no issues with any of her fellow students. Then she went to her geometry class and everything changed.

According to the girl, her teacher got a look at her shirt and told her to leave the classroom. The girl refused and she refused to change. At that point, the teacher allegedly pulled her into the hallway and began to ridicule her. Part of this included comparing her to the KKK. If that wasn’t bad enough, the teacher also encouraged others to ridicule the girl.

I can’t blame the girl, Samantha, for feeling like she’d been bullied by the teacher. She had been. Nor can I blame her for not wanting to return to that teacher’s class. I sure wouldn’t want to. The teacher had proven to be a bully. I’d lay money on the teacher also being one to hold a grudge. No student should be forced to put up with that.

Making matters worse, at least in my mind, is the teacher’s excuse. The teacher said it was all a joke, that she jokes around with all her students.

Pardon me? Comparing someone to the KKK because they wore a Romney/Ryan tee shirt to class is a joke? Egging on others to ridicule the student is a joke? Bullying a student is a joke?

Now, before someone says this teacher was simply exercising her right to free speech, she wasn’t. This situation is pretty much the same as the yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. This teacher used her position of authority in an attempt to intimidate a student. When that didn’t work, she then tried to incite others to do the same, something that could have caused physical harm to the girl. Remember, this was an adult, a teacher. There is a special sort of responsibility teachers hold — and this particular teacher forgot.

I’m sorry, but when teachers are allowed to act this way because a student happens to support a political candidate the teacher doesn’t, it’s time for that teacher — and probably that school’s principal — to be fired. The teacher because she is no longer teacher but is trying to intimidate and indoctrinate. The principal because it’s a pretty good bet that this sort of behavior isn’t an isolated incident.

So here’s to two very brave youngsters — Trevor and Samantha. You go, guys!


    1. Gotta agree with you, Sanford. I don’t know which one of the so-called educators I wanted to throttle more: the principal who wore pink to show her support after causing such trouble for Trevor or the teacher who obviously thinks it’s okay to bully and intimidate students. Can’t you just hear the O supporters if she’d been wearing one of his shirts instead of one of Romney’s?

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