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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Free Speech in Public Schools

Eric Scheske

Last week, a student won the right to wear his t-shirt. A New York judge signed a permanent injunction ordering Fillmore Central High School to allow the student to wear a shirt that said, “Abortion is Homicide. You will not silence my message. You will not mock my God. You will stop killing my generation. Rock for Life.”

The principal had earlier sent the student home for wearing the shirt. The student contacted the Thomas More Law Center, which then contacted the school and demanded that the student be allowed to wear the t-shirt. The principal — with the backing of district officials — refused. A lawsuit ensued, and the student now has an injunction that allows him to wear the shirt, and the school district has a court order to pay the student’s legal fees in the amount of nearly $25,000.

When it comes to education, I typically side with rules instead of freedom of expression. I want school administrators to have the ability to impose restrictions and discipline. Heck, I even support the return of corporal punishment. All such things need to be tempered with a vibrant private-school sector so students have an alternative in case Principal Bonecrusher gets out of hand, but I want public schools to have more authority within their realm.

But in this case, I’m glad the student won. According to the lawyer who handled the trial, “Students at Fillmore were allowed to wear all manner of shirts, including rock band shirts depicting bloody skulls, and shirts promoting sex, yet this public school singled out our client to silence his peaceful pro-life message.”

I’m not so concerned with the complex maze of First Amendment jurisprudence. I’m more interested in a simple question: What was the principal thinking?

If the guy had simply made a bad judgment call and recanted when confronted, I could understand. Everyone makes mistakes. Maybe he was having a bad day and the student had an attitude. Who knows?

But the principal dug in. Indeed, the whole school district dug in. They hired lawyers and took the risk of being scalped in public. Fifty thousand dollars later (their own legal fees presumably matched the plaintiff’s), the student can wear the shirt.

I searched for an explanation of the school district’s position, but I couldn’t find one. It didn’t post a public statement on the school website or anywhere else that I could find.

So I’m just going to make an assumption: the principal is a militant secularist, and he has the backing of a militantly secularist school board.

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re “religious” people. It’s not unusual to run across secularists who identify themselves as “deeply spiritual.” Such a public proclamation is a sure sign that the person isn’t spiritual (G.K. Chesterton once observed that the most consistent thing about holiness is that it conceals its holiness), but no matter. They think they are.

But they want spirituality — holiness, religion, moral commands — kept intensely private. They want spirituality kept out of the public sphere.

Such a desire could be laudable, but these same secularists usually have another goal: they want the public sphere expanded. For instance, instead of limited jurisdiction over — and access to — a student’s mind, the public schools’ reach constantly expands. It’s no longer the “three Rs” (reading, writing, arithmetic). It’s now the three Rs and social studies and gym and child care and non-stop extra-curriculars and school breakfasts. You name it. The public schools’ reach keeps expanding.

So two things are happening: The public sphere under the aegis of the public schools keeps expanding, and the public sphere is intensely anti-religion. The result? Religion and spirituality are pushed to the edges. There’s only so much time in a day and so much energy in a mind. As the public schools sap time and energy from the children, there’s not much left.

It returns me to the throwaway side comment I made above: we need a “vibrant private-school sector.”

This country has made a lot of progress with public schools (though the idea that “this country was built on public schools” is ridiculous). Public schools definitely have their place at the table.

Thing is, they don’t think anyone else, including private schools, deserve to sit at the table. The public schools want all the guests, all the food, and all the meals.

So when students are discriminated against, like the teenager with a pro-life shirt, they can’t leave and go to a competitor. They have no alternatives.

Except to litigate.

  • © Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

    Eric Scheske is an attorney, the Editor of The Daily Eudemon, a Contributing Editor of Godspy, and the former editor of Gilbert Magazine.

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