Scott Tibbs
blog post
March 23rd, 2004

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You don't lose your rights at the schoolhouse door

Earlier this month, a student at Denbigh High School in Newport News, Virginia was told he was not allowed to wear a shirt with the text "Abortion is Homicide. You will not silence my message. You will not mock my God. You will stop killing my generation." After a threat of a lawsuit by the Thomas More Foundation, the school relented and he will be allowed to wear his shirt.

There have been other cases of schools censoring pro-life shirts. At Abington Jr. High School in Abington, Pennsylvania, told an honor student he was not allowed to wear a "Rock for Life" shirt after another student and his mother went whining and crying to the school about the shirt. A high school student in suburban Cleveland was also told he was not allowed to wear a pro-life shirt.

Edward White of the Thomas More Foundation said in the Abington case that the school might be justified in banning the shirt if it caused a "significant disruption", citing that another shirt with a picture of the Confederate flag had caused ongoing fist fights. On one level I agree. A government school's mission, first and foremost, is the education of its students, and disruptions to that education cheats both the children and the taxpayers.

However, this represents a very slippery slope that must be avoided. Government should err on the side of free speech, especially in matters of political speech. The First Amendment's protections of free speech were written with political speech in mind. It sets a dangerous precedent to censor students' political speech because of the reactions of other students. Virtually any political message, no matter how mild, could be subject to censorship if another students reacts to it in an immature way.

In addition, the wording of the Denbigh High School policy needs to be changed, as it is begging to be struck down as unconstitutionally vague. Any written material or pictures "that convey an offensive, racial, obscene, or sexually suggestive message" are subject to being censored. "Racial, obscene, or sexually suggestive" can at least be defined, though there is a large gray area. The problem comes in restricting "offensive" speech. Virtually any speech can be deemed "offensive" by someone, especially speech on a controversial political or social issue.

Students do not lose their free speech rights at the door of a government school, and that is something that more government school administrations are going to have to learn. For more on persecution of Christian beliefs, I suggest reading Persecution by David Limbaugh.

Update: March 24, 2004 Here's an update to my earlier post about the censorship of a pro-life message in a government school. Some people say that the school has a right to ban anything that creates a "disruption" to the learning process.

Why would that shirt be a disruption? Is the student wearing the shirt disrupting the class? Or are we more concerned about how other students might react to the shirt?

In the first case, the problem is not a shirt with a message on a political or social issue, the problem is the disruptive students behavior. In the second case, the problem is with the behavior of other students.

There is no legitimate reason for government infringement on the free speech rights of students because of immature behavior of other students. Yet I see this argument used quite a bit as to why censorship is needed, from the "affirmative action bake sales" and the Genocide Awareness Project to a simple pro-life sweatshirt.

If the reactions of other people to political speech is the barometer by which we judge whether or not censorship is justified, virtually any political message can be censored if the other side is immature enough to threaten some sort of a "disruption". That basically hands our free speech rights to thugs, bullies and crybabies who now have the ability to shut down any and all political statements they dislike.

If another student is being disruptive because he does not approve of statements on political or social issues made by another student, then it is the disruptive student who needs to be removed and punished, not the student exercising his First Amendment rights.