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.”