Friday, September 21, 2007

The Bitter with the Sweet

One of the downsides to supporting First Amendment rights is that you need to support them for everyone. This, of course, is part of what leads people to thinking groups like the ACLU are evil, because they dare to take up causes for oppressed groups or demographics who lack the means to represent themselves. But I digress.

The particular incident to which I refer involves public schools and students therein. It seems a school in New Jersey instituted a mandatory school uniform policy. A couple students took offense to said policy. Those students then went to school wearing "buttons depicting a Hitler Youth assembly" to protest the policy. The school district did not care for such a protest, and the school board, in their infinite wisdom, wrote a letter to the children's parents threatening to suspend the students because the district found the buttons objectionable and offensive (a bit of irony, one might suggest, since the students were objecting to school uniforms and the buttons depicted students in uniforms). The parents then filed suit against the school district.

Now the judge at the injunction hearing said something that is very important for school districts (and others) to hear: "A student whose protected expression is stifled suffers an injury that cannot be undone."

It is important to note that the students depicted in the picture were innocuous (I wouldn't be surprised to read that one or more of the students' parents were lawyers); there were no markings indicating the boys in the picture were Nazi children, and this was a key point in the case. The judge noted that if there were swastikas or confederate flags, or something similarly inflammatory, that would be different. To that end, he cited Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969), "A student may not be punished for merely expressing views unless the school has reason to believe that the speech of expression will 'materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school (emphasis mine).'" There was nothing the school district presented (or could probably present) that could show how a button depicting boys sitting at desks would disrupt the school.

Now, I think this was the right decision. While I support the idea of school uniforms (I really don't see them as functionally any different than school clothes and after school clothes like we had as children), I believe that a student does have a right to voice his objection to the same. To teach children the concept of freedom (or do we? Is civics covered in No Child Left Behind?) while denying them the same is the ultimate in hypocrisy.

No comments: