Kids say the darnedest things.
That’s how you know they’re kids. Their fondness for rash overstatement is part and parcel of a stage of life characterized by impulsiveness and an unshakable faith in one’s own righteousness.
The challenge for schools is to balance kids’ impetuousness against their right of free speech. As any parent can attest, sometimes you have to protect kids from themselves. But if you overprotect them, how do they ever learn to use their rights responsibly?
That question brings us to Morgan Hill, Calif., where several boys recently decided to wear American flag T-shirts to Live Oak High School. It may sound innocuous, but it wasn’t. See, the boys, some of whom are Mexican-American, did this on May 5 — Cinco de Mayo, as their classmates (nearly 40 percent of whom are reported to be Latino) were celebrating that Mexican holiday, some even wearing the red, white and green of the Mexican flag. Moreover, they did it in the context of a contentious national debate over illegal immigration from Mexico.
In that context, on that date and in that place, the decision to wear those shirts was not innocent, but, rather, a calculated provocation. Assistant Principal Miguel Rodriguez, calling the shirts “incendiary” and fearing a fight, asked the students to either take the shirts off or turn them inside out. When several of the boys refused, he sent them home.
Ironically, it is the decision itself that has proven incendiary. The school district disavows it and conservative critics have lambasted it as un-American. They’re right.
At least, I think they are; the Supreme Court has been less than definitive in setting the boundaries of free speech for students. In 1969, it sided with three kids suspended from school for wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War, ruling that they could not be prohibited from expressing their opinions if they did not interfere with the operation of the school or the rights of others.
Subsequent courts have edged away from that affirmation of relatively unfettered rights, allowing schools to ban sexually explicit student speech in one ruling, and speech that seems to promote illegal drug use in another.
Still, it is hard to see this latest incident as anything but an abridgement of those students’ First Amendment rights — not to mention an act of glaring hypocrisy. By what reasoning does Rodriguez ban red, white and blue while permitting red, white and green? All that said, though, neither of those complaints addresses what seems to me the most regrettable aspect of this affair. Namely, the fact that this educator missed a teachable moment.
Imagine if Rodriguez had corralled the most articulate of the T-shirt boys and the Cinco de Mayo celebrators and required them to research and represent their points of view in a formal debate before the entire school. The T-shirt kid could have challenged his classmate to explain why he felt the need, if he is an American, to celebrate a foreign holiday. The classmate could have pressed the T-shirt kid on why he felt threatened by a simple acknowledgment of heritage and cultural origin.
Maybe they reach an understanding, maybe they don’t. But in any event they learn a valuable lesson: that reasonable people reason their way through disagreements. And that the First Amendment confers not just a right to speak your piece, but an obligation to allow the other guy to do the same.
Instead, Miguel Rodriguez taught the opposite lesson: that it is OK to ban the unpopular or provocative opinion. Few things could be less reflective of American ideals.
See, there is no constitutional right to never be offended. Someone should explain that to the students of Live Oak High. And their assistant principal could stand a refresher course, too.
— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com. firstname.lastname@example.org