A recent HuffPost story chronicled the conflict at St. Charles North High School in Illinois. During "Ally Week," an affair orchestrated to show support for gay and lesbian students, many students donned "Gay Pride" T-shirts. Anti-allies countered with "Straight Pride" T-shirts with this Biblical verse on the backside: "If a man lay with a male as those who lay with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination and shall surely be put to DEATH." All hell broke loose.
Fairly quickly all but the most feverish Biblical literalists grudgingly acknowledged that maybe death threats, scriptural or otherwise, might be a tad over the top. The students were directed to black out the "threat" and complied. The next day they were prohibited from wearing the "Straight Pride" shirts at all as the Deans of the school, according to The Huffington Post article, felt the shirts "carried enough baggage" and were thereby insulting to gay and lesbians students (and, I infer, to their straight allies).
Predictably, the Straight Pride crowd had their little knickers in knots. In the school and 'round the town of St. Charles good and righteous folks asked, "If students can wear 'Gay Pride' shirts, why not 'Straight Pride'? Have we lost our moorings in an ocean of political correctness when it's fine to be gay but wrong to be straight?" At last count, The Huffington Post community has posted nearly 2000 comments on the matter, many asking this kind of question, others defending the First Amendment rights of the wearers of both shirts. Can't have a double standard here, can we?
Sure we can. The Straight Pride students and, presumably many of their parents and other supporters, assertively invoked the Bill of Rights, but case law is fairly clear: High school students have somewhat limited First Amendment rights. Whether in cases of suppression of inflammatory student journalism or in managing disciplinary matters, schools and school administrators have significantly more latitude to suppress or punish speech than is broadly the case in society. That's because we're the adults and they're the kids.
Don't get me wrong. I love the First Amendment as much as the next guy -- maybe more. Lenny Bruce and George Carlin are among my pop culture heroes. But schools are not Main Street, and homophobic kids with incomplete frontal lobes ought not be allowed to offend or threaten their vulnerable classmates with impunity. Some of the students argued that Straight Pride is the generic equivalent of Gay Pride. They thereby revealed a profound lack of understanding of privilege, power, and history. Consider the Black Pride movement, which arose from a powerful need to repair the deep wounds caused by a century of slavery, cruelty, and government proscribed barriers to life, liberty and pursuit of opportunity. In that era a White Pride shirt could only mean "stay in your place or else." I spent a year in rural Georgia in the late '60s and can tell you first hand what white garments meant to black folks. And these days Straight Pride T-shirts are not that far removed from the bully's taunts that have gay and lesbian teenagers turning to a hangman's noose out of abject desperation.
As the head of a school, I occasionally deal with student matters where Constitutional rights are invoked as defense of whatever position the student wishes to cling to. If students complain, "You're violating my Constitutional rights!" I ask them to define which right and invite them to cite the appropriate Article or Amendment. Every moment is teachable! Occasionally I capitulate. Sometimes I invite them to do a little research on rights of secondary school students in matters of free expression or privacy. Now and then I just say, "Yep, I'm violating your rights."
My point is not to be dismissive of students or to demean their natural and desirable inclination to challenge authority. It's just that in this case, and many others, we can't allow mean-spirited kids to get away with invoking our elegant Constitution as a cover for harassment and bullying.
Letting St. Charles students wear White Pride shirts would not teach them that the Constitution protects freedom of expression. It would teach them that the adults are too stupid to see the mockery and bigotry easily visible behind the righteous protestations.