Romney Shirts and a Public School

You may have heard about this one by now: A teenager in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia has complained that her teacher ridiculed her Romney t-shirt.  But have you heard that an up-and-coming politician plans to respond by bombarding the school with the Pledge of Allegiance?  There may not be a clear logical connection, but the emotional connection is clear.

The teenager, Samantha Pawlucy, complains that her teacher, Lynette Gaymon, made fun of her campaign t-shirt.  According to Pawlucy, Gaymon pointed and laughed at the shirt.  Gaymon allegedly told Pawlucy that such a shirt was just as ridiculous in their neighborhood as if Gaymon, an African American woman, wore a t-shirt in support of the Ku Klux Klan.  According to relatives, Gaymon was simply making a joke about the heavily Democratic voting patterns of Philadelphia.  Gaymon has apologized to the Pawlucy family.  Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has met with both parties in the controversy, and, predictably, both Pawlucy and Gaymon have reported threats and harassment.

There is not much doubt in this case that Gaymon was out of line.  If she really ridiculed Pawlucy for wearing a Romney t-shirt, her actions were not only unconstitutional, but simply irresponsible teaching.  If, as her relatives assert, she was only making a joke about the slim chances Romney had for gaining votes in Philly, then she is at least guilty of making a joke in bad taste, to a student who didn’t find it funny.

But Gaymon has apologized for all that.

There is no question that a student in a public school is entitled to wear a political t-shirt.  There is no question in this case that teachers at public schools ought not make fun of students’ political beliefs.  Yet politicians and activists have been able to use this case to make strong public arguments about the proper nature of public education.

Dave Kralle, for instance, a candidate for the Pennsylvania State Legislature, has called for a rally this morning at Pawlucy’s high school.  Kralle wants Gaymon fired.  His call for a rally laments the fact that “We have been told there isn’t a single American flag at the school and the Pledge is NEVER recited.  This gives you an indication of how far our public education system has fallen.”

For Kralle and his supporters, the notion that a public school might not prominently display the flag or have students recite the Pledge of Allegiance is a clear sign of educational malfeasance.  Such an environment, Kralle implies, contributes to partisan jokes like the ones made by Gaymon.

We hope that this controversy dies down quickly.  But Kralle’s accusations that Pawlucy’s public school is un-American demonstrate some of the emotional wrappings of patriotism in public schooling.  Kralle’s seeming non sequitur might not make much sense, Constitutionally.  There’s no reason why a school that does not display the flag or recite the Pledge would have anything to do with a comment about a Romney t-shirt.  But Kralle’s rally makes a lot of sense emotionally.  For many Americans, public schools must embody the tradition of patriotism; public schools must exist to train young people in patriotic symbolism.  As Kralle complains, any school with no flags and no Pledge has “fallen.”

***UPDATE, TUESDAY EVENING, OCTOBER 9, 2012***

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7 Comments

  1. Ed Brandt

     /  October 9, 2012

    I have to disagree that there is a First Amendment issue here. The girl was not told she was not allowed to wear the shirt, so her freedom of speech was not blocked by the government. Making fun of someone is not a violation of their First Amendment rights, any more than wearing an unpopular political t-shirt might be.

    It shouldn’t have happened, and the teacher’s apology is being ignored, possibly because this family has already lawyered up.

    As for Kralle, he has seized on a political opportunity. His campaign site hits all the right notes for an evangelical conservative candidate, and there is an underlying perception in our country that religious conservatives are more moral and patriotic than the rest of us. As for not saying the modified “under God” Pledge, I went to high school decades ago, and the Pledge was not said at the junior- or senior-high levels. Was that a sign of unpatriotic liberalism run rampant? I doubt it. I lived in North Pole, Alaska.

    I used to teach fitness classes at a university. I’m not what you would call a fashion plate, and rarely gave a second thought to what t-shirt I threw on on my way out of the house. Two incidents stand out.

    One day, close to the governor’s election in 2006, I wore a Tony Knowles shirt. Sarah Palin was the other candidate, and she was very popular at the time (oh, if only they had listened to me). I had several students complain that I was violating some phantom Amendment by wearing a political shirt while teaching a fitness class. My staunchly conservative department head reported the complaint, but did not act on it.

    The one I’ll never forget was when I wore a shirt from the Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. A student asked me what that was, and I told her. She went apeshit, and said I had no right to wear a shirt in support of atheism and that I should be ashamed of myself for my wicked lifestyle, etc. It was September. She was wearing a “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” shirt. I never saw her again after that. Once again, the religious are more moral than the atheists.

    My point is that I never commented on, or asked a single student to change a shirt I didn’t agree with, no matter what their political or religious affiliation. Well, I did once rib a dude for wearing a White Sox shirt in my class. There is only so much controversy I can take.

    Reply
    • @Ed, I keep picturing your conversation with the apeshit “Jesus is the Reason” for September woman. Hilarious. I imagine you with palms facing forward in an irenic gesture, slowly backing away as the woman advances, spit flying out of her mouth and foaming up in rabid pools at the corners of her mouth. Maybe that’s a little too dramatic, but that’s how I’m seeing it.
      But I do believe that there is more than just a whiff of First Amendment violation here. The SCOTUS precedent is fairly clear. In cases such as Tinker v. Des Moines and Abington Township v. Schempp/Murray v. Curlett, SCOTUS has been consistent in the past fifty years: public school teachers represent the state. Thus, they cannot lead a prayer in a public school. And students maintain their free speech rights even when they enter a school, even as they implicitly accept the discipline of the institution. As you say, the Tinker precedent is about students who were told they could not wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. In this case, neither the school nor the teacher banned the t-shirt. One teacher just mocked it.
      However, SCOTUS has clearly endorsed the notion that public school teachers’ speech–when the teacher speaks qua teacher and not outside of school–is not that of private individuals. So for Lynette Gaymon to ridicule an explicitly political student t-shirt does smack of First Amendment violations.
      Maybe I’m letting my prejudice color my interpretations here, but as a former high-school teacher who often joked with students, I picture Gaymon’s comments as a joke that unintentionally offended a student. Maybe I’m giving Gaymon too much slack, but that’s how this case looks to me. Nevertheless, for a teacher in a classroom at a public school to mock the politics of a student makes me nervous. Teachers should not feel liberty to mock students’ political beliefs.
      Mocking a White Sox shirt is a different matter. That’s just common sense.

      Reply
      • Ed Brandt

         /  October 9, 2012

        I also took this as a bad joke that was taken too harshly. Sort of like the “Your mama is so fat” line of snaps. No one literally believes someone’s matron is so morbidly obese that if you cut them, gravy spills out instead of blood. However, those with overweight parents might find these jokes overly offensive. This would not be an appropriate line of comedy in a classroom, either. Common sense should have told this teacher that her statements weren’t appropriate. The sad point is that the teacher has, as requested, apologized, yet many still call for her dismissal, including the lawyered-up family. There will be a cash settlement in the near future. I wonder if the Romney campaign will see a windfall?

        As for my incident with the t-shirts, you forgot the part where I saw the irony of the student’s argument and absurdity of her fit, and started laughing. Perhaps not the best answer to the situation, but it was reflexive.

  2. Ed Brandt

     /  October 9, 2012

    I just thought of a nice piece of situational irony here. I picture the rally like this:

    “Okay everyone, we are here to support the free speech rights of all students. You should be able to say what you want, when you want. Now, I need you all to prove your patriotism and loyalty to the United States of America every single morning by repeating in unison, without deviation or omission, the Pledge of Allegiance.”

    Reply
    • Adam Laats

       /  October 9, 2012

      @ Ed, This morning’s Pledge rally was really the thing that attracted my attention to this story. Otherwise it might seem like just a goofy overblown spat during a tense election cycle. But Kralle’s notion that a public school without flags and a daily Pledge recitation was somehow a sign of the breakdown of American culture got my attention. To folks like me, Kralle’s Pledge rally doesn’t make much logical sense. But I understand that it makes a great deal of political, emotional, ideological, cultural sense, to a lot of people. There is a deep and strong notion that schools in America should look and act a certain way. Kralle’s connection between the Pledge and one teacher’s comment seems to symbolize that ideological bundle. I’m very interested to see how Kralle’s Pledge rally turns out this morning. My guess is that he will be one day late. The student is already back in school. My hunch is that Philadelphians have already moved on. We’ll see…

      Reply
  3. Ed Brandt

     /  October 10, 2012

    It’s fascinating how different people can read a letter and come up with different impressions from the language in it. I read Gaymon’s letter, and saw the words “I’m sorry” and “regret” in it. The letter ends with a plea for an end to the harassment of Pawlucy. In between, she defends free speech.

    Contrast this with the comments from readers. The overwhelming opinion is she didn’t really apologize, and hell, it wouldn’t matter if she did, because she needs to be fired.

    This really should be the end of it, if indeed it needed to go this far. But there are always going to be those who won’t forget and won’t forgive. This is what we’ve become: “She should apologize!” “Okay, I’m sorry.” “No you’re not. You’re fired!” It’s really quite sad.

    Reply
  1. Zimmerman on School T-Shirt Politics « I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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