Months before protesters disrupted Kirstjen Nielsen’s dinner and the owner of a farm-to-table restaurant asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave and hecklers confronted Pam Bondi at a movie theater, 17-year-old Noah Christiansen walked out of class, called his congressman’s office, and said lawmakers should “get off their fucking asses.”
By the phony standards of our national discourse, this was uncivil stuff — never mind that at the time of the call Christiansen was participating in a nationwide school walk-out to demand action on gun control, a civil cause in every sense. This was about a month after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, where a gunman killed 17 people at a high school. Christiansen had placed a call to Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), a National Rifle Association-endorsed politician, who has called for loosening restrictions on gun sales.
You might remember what happened next. Arturo Garzon, the staffer in Amodei’s office who’d taken the call, was unmoved by the high-schooler’s plea for life-saving intervention. But he was bothered by Christiansen’s use of profanity. And so he phoned up the kid’s school in Reno and tattled. Administrators at Robert McQueen High School suspended Christiansen two days for what it determined was an act of “defiance/disrespect/insubordination.” He was also told he couldn’t serve as the school’s class secretary.
The incident was an early entry in our dispiriting National Civility Debate, in which people with little power are scolded by elites for expressing themselves in a manner commensurate with the stakes of this fucking political moment. Emails obtained via a public records request show a fuller picture: of the pettiness of authority figures, sure, but also of what “civility” really means to the sort of people who don’t hang out in TV green rooms.
According to one email, the school’s principal, Amy Marable, justified the punishment by describing Christiansen as a student with a history of behaving uncivilly. In a letter responding to the American Civil Liberties Union, which had taken up Christiansen’s cause, Marable said that he used the “the F word repeatedly” at a debate tournament, had argued that the school’s dress code restrictions on women baring their shoulders promoted rape culture, and handed out condoms in the hallway after being told the school clinic would not provide them to students.
The school eventually removed the suspension from Christiansen’s record and allowed him to serve in student government — but only after hearing from the ACLU and a bunch of angry grown-ups from all over the country. Email after email to Marable chastised the principal for not seeing that the greater obscenity was the phenomenon the teen was addressing — the political cowardice that has created a generation of students like Christiansen who have to worry about getting gunned down in the middle of math class.
One man, who identified himself as an “educator,” advised Marable to tell Amodei and his staff to “fuck off.” (The school redacted Christiansen’s name from all the emails provided to HuffPost.)
Amodei is “a true snowflake,” another remarked.
A professor at Columbia University weighed in and said that Amodei should “get off his fucking ass” and pass gun legislation.
“If people are not passionate and willing to speak out about change more innocent children and people are going to die,” one woman wrote.
Schools should encourage students to call their elected officials, a lawyer wrote.
Even the more civilized adults who thought Christiansen shouldn’t have cussed thought the school went too far.
Teenagers say “fuck” all the time, one eighth-grade teacher helpfully informed Marable.
How can we expect a student to be more polite than the president, several grown-ups wrote.
People who wrote school administrators on Christiansen’s behalf received a carefully worded non-answer about the importance of free speech from the Washoe County School District.
The school’s response did not go over well.