Students and free speech

For newspapers, hardly an edition goes by where someone does not upset by something in the news. Actually, this is pretty much true for ANY publication read by the public. Just read the letters to the editors to see what sorts of things irritate folks.

When I was editor of the paper in Piggott (a town of nearly 4,000), I heard some mumblings after we ran a photo of some PHS students wearing “I hate Corning” (a bitter rival) tee-shirt. Most of what we heard was folks talking about sportsmanship and all that. One or two tried to accuse the paper of poor sportsmanship, though I wasn’t even aware that we’d participated in any event. Kinda like the Iraq war, we don’t make the stuff up, we just report on it.

One letter writer went on to suggest the moral superiority of Corning. I guess they missed the “I hate Piggott” tee-shirts during the football game the season before. Most who talked to me directly simply expressed the opinion that it was poor sportsmanship on the part of the three young men wearing the shirts.

So why print the photo?

School pride.

Plain and simple.

After a discussion with our sports writer, who was at the game, we decided the three young men wearing the tee-shirts had done so in a display of school spirit. We didn’t think they expressed the opinion that they hated the entire community. In the famous words of Bugs Bunny, they wanted “to murderize” their opponents. As a competitor, you WANT that attitude in your team. Just ask any coach.

The biggest issue, though, is that of the administration “allowing” them to wear these shirts. While I personally wouldn’t wear that shirt, the students had and have the right to wear that shirt. It didn’t display anything profane or even suggest any foul language—which would be a reason for demanding they change them—nor did it disrupt the learning atmosphere in any way. It certainly wasn’t destructive—like tossing eggs at a vehicle, or vandalizing the elementary school, both of which have been done before.

It is a very dangerous thing to toy with the rights of students. Under the United States Constitution, the rights of Americans do not end at the school house door. Sure, there are certain rules that must be followed and certain actions (defined as those which disrupt the learning atmosphere) aren’t allowed, but students still have the right to free speech. Being seventeen doesn’t mean you’ve lost your free speech rights.

The thought of a school administration trampling on the rights of students, or of “offended” members of a community demanding the rights of students be denied quite simply scares me.

Instead of going on about how the administration should not allow these tee-shirts (which, could lead to serious prosecution for violation of First Amendment rights, something that has been done at several schools already across the U.S.), we should encourage the administration to teach WHY shirts like this might not be the best choice. We should encourage the administration—and parents—to create a teaching moment out of the event and suggest alternatives; even discuss pros and cons of the shirts and pros and cons of possible alternatives. Oddly enough, the administration reacted excellently about the entire thing. They didn’t make a big deal of it, but I’m guessing they pulled the students aside and chatted with them. After all, isn’t that what we want schools to do: to teach our kids?

We should applaud the students for HAVING an opinion and for having the courage to express it. That’s pretty rare in our day and age and getting rarer each day. All responsible adults who disagree with what the students displayed on their shirt should use their free speech rights AND their maturity to try to teach and instruct, not whine and moan that they were poor sports. If we spend our time whining about everything that offends us…we’ll be doing an awful lot of whining. And, as mom used to say, wouldn’t it be better to find a more constructive way to use our time?


Filed under Columns

5 responses to “Students and free speech

  1. Lee

    ok, does this mean I can wear my “I deeply dislike Piggott, Corning, and most of North East Arkansas” T shirt. Just wondering…..

    A dissatisfied stock holder

  2. Peggy Johnson

    Good article, Roland.

  3. Dave

    I tend to agree – IF the students are otherwise free to dress more or less as they wish. As a police officer assigned to a public school I have seen that a strict dress code does much to make schools better. School uniforms are better yet: they protectdecency, reduce jealousyand pride and save parents a lot of money. It even eliminates thefts of shoes, handbags, and accessories that otherwise take place. Dave

  4. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s flip is the history we make today.

  5. He tells the truth. Kurosawa is always trying to tell the truth. And most of the time, he succeeded. We in the West don’t particularly care about the truth, and most of the time don’t even know what the #$!& it is.
    James Coburn, American actor, speaking of Akira Kurosawa

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