Zimmerman on School T-Shirt Politics

Jonathan Zimmerman wants students in public schools to be able to wear any kind of t-shirt they want.

He asks a pointed question in this morning’s Inquirer about the Romney t-shirt controversy: What if Sam Pawlucy’s shirt had not supported Romney, but supported an anti-homosexual position?  In a similar case in 2007, a student was prohibited from wearing a shirt that proclaimed, ‘Homosexuality is shameful.’

I’m a big fan of Zimmerman, the reigning Pooh-Bah of American educational historians and the author of the best book out there on culture wars in public schools.  As he has argued for years, in this morning’s op-ed Zimmerman wants students to be given freer range to offend.  He asks in his Inquirer piece,

“Why should we assume that some people need special protection from distasteful speech? In the guise of defending minorities, these restrictions actually patronize them. And they make a mockery of Tinker, which emphasized the rights of students to exercise free speech, not to be shielded from it.”

As Our Man in Scotland commented yesterday about the Philadelphia t-shirt controversy, Sam Pawlucy would not likely have received such enthusiastic support if her shirt had not supported GOP candidate Romney.  Zimmerman agrees.  The point of free speech, Zimmerman argues, is not to protect speech with which we agree.  The point of free speech is to protect all forms of speech, even and especially those phrases that are offensive or controversial.

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  1. Ed Brandt

     /  October 10, 2012

    For another perspective on this, have a look at the UK hate speech laws. Here you can actually be fined or even imprisoned for using racial, ethnic, sexually-oriented or religious slurs. The accused must also meet the broadly-defined definition of using such speech to harass, alarm or distress. The result is footballers (soccer player to you and me), religious protesters and good, old-fashioned bigots are brought up on charges on a fairly regular basis.

    Earlier this year, a college student sent out some pretty sick and twisted tweets following the on-pitch heart attack of a black football player. They were in horrible taste, to be sure, but in the US they wouldn’t have resulted in 56 days in jail like they did in this case.

    In one famous case, an evangelical was convicted after displaying a banner that said “Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord.”

    While I don’t agree with either of these men’s sentiments, I find it odd, as an American and card-carrying member of the ACLU, that laws like this exist. If the exact t-shirt situation had happened here, would the teacher have been arrested under such laws? Probably. Could an argument be made that wearing a t-shirt promoting a candidate who has nearly 0% support among the African-American community in Philadelphia be considered harassing? I doubt it, but I’m fairly certain someone would come up with that argument.

    As a rule, I err on the side of more free speech for everyone, including students, evangelicals and hateful bigots.

    • @ Ed, I agree, and I think Jon Zimmerman would too. The nub of the issue, I think, is the definition of “harm.” Jon argues that more harm is done when offensive speech is curtailed. But some speech is not allowed for good reasons. Yelling fire in a movie theater, threatening someone, spreading false stories about someone, all these are illegal. I agree that these kinds of speech are properly legally restricted.
      These kinds of speech directly harm someone else. In the 2007 case that Jon cited, a shirt proclaiming “Homosexuality is shameful” was ruled to be harmfully offensive. I don’t agree. But I would agree that someone displaying a noose–in the context of American history and politics–is doing more than making a statement. He or she is making an implied threat. And that, IMHO, can legitimately be restricted.


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