In Defense of Anti-Abortion T-Shirts

| 6/6/2008 10:36:10 AM

A 12-year-old wearing an anti-abortion T-shirt is suing his school in Hutchinson, Minnesota, after being told by the administration to remove it, reports Minnesota Monitor. This selective enforcement of free speech is troubling—as much as I might disagree with his politics and find his actions offensive, I do believe this student should be protected by the First Amendment. Eventually, a student might be punished for wearing a NARAL or Planned Parenthood T-shirt, and I’d like him or her to be able to cite precedent.

It reminds me of the minor controversy that arose lo these many years ago at my own high school when students were banned from wearing their horribly tacky Co-Ed Naked and Big Johnson T-shirts. Obnoxious and vulgar? Definitely. Protected by the First Amendment? Absolutely. Unfortunately, public schools are often the places where free speech is prohibited most frequently and arbitrarily, in the interest of a “disruption-free” classroom.

Though it’s a stand we may take reluctantly, our commitment to free speech should supercede our own tastes and politics; limiting speech with which we disagree defeats the whole purpose of the First Amendment. Wendy Kaminer argues as much in last month’s Free Inquiry, lamenting the results of a recent Freedom Forum survey where 74 percent of respondents disapproved of public school students being allowed to wear T-shirts with offensive words or pictures, and reminding us that “the right to speak is nullified when made contingent on the willingness of people with opposing views to listen.”

James O'Brien
6/12/2008 1:07:03 PM

No, it is not the same as yelling "fire" in a crowded theater (when there is no fire). That speech is illegal. The T-shirt that says "oppose abortion" or "support abortion" may be controversial but it is not illegal, nor does it urge an illegal (as opposed to immoral)act. The T-shirt that says "Legalize marijuana" may be controversial but it is not illegal, nor does it urge an illegal act. The T-shirt that says "Kids, I currently smoke marijauna and you should, too" may be controversial but it is not illegal per se; it does exhort the reader to commit an illegal act, and could (should) be regulated in schools, at least below the college level. The T-shirt that says "Kill all Irish people" may not be controversial but it might be illegal, and urges an illegal act. The T-shirt that says "Hanes" on the inside at the back of the neck may be worn by people that support or oppose any one of the positions stated above, but don't feel the need to tell a disinterested or hostile world that their most deeply held beliefs will barely fill the front of a T-shirt, even in oversize font.

Sara Mason
6/9/2008 10:19:43 PM

I support free speech. But I also support a school's right to maintain order. If this means having a dress code, by all means, I am supportive of that!! Because that issue is highly inflammatory, wearing a shirt supporting either side of the abortion argument can be considered provocative in the same way as yelling FIRE in a crowded theater.

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