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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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***