|Texanna Edwards wearing her Confederate flag prom dress.|
After 31 years in the classroom, I'm never surprised when school administrators violate students' rights of freedom of speech. In fact, I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often.
School administrators are a paranoid lot. They think their school is one step away from chaos, and administrators take pains to avoid that chaos, even if that means trampling on a student's right of free speech.
Such was the case in Tennessee at Gibson Country High School last Saturday night where Texanna Edwards was prohibited from entering the prom because her dress looked like the Confederate battle flag (see above photo).
Eddie Pruett, director of the Gibson County School System used the same, old, tired argument that school administrators hide behind when he discussed Texanna's dress: "They [principal and teachers] have to ensure they have a safe environment for all students.”
Now if you've read my prior postings, I'm no fan of the South. But freedom of speech is freedom of speech--no matter what side of the political spectrum you're on. That's the beauty of our Constitution, right!
Freedom of speech is for conservatives as well as liberals. It knows no left or right side! When Knox College students tried to block former Attorney General John Ashcroft from speaking on campus a few years back, I defended his appearance on the local Galesburg, IL radio station.
And how about the case of Chase Harper, who was suspended from Poway High School in San Diego because he wore a t-shirt that said "Homosexuality Is Shameful" on the school's Gay Pride Day. Poway school administrators said that Chase was suspended because his t-shirt "disrupted the educational experience of other students." Chase should have been allowed to exercise his freedom of speech. The gay students were exercising theirs.
I was a high school newspaper adviser at Fremd High School in Palatine for thirteen years, and I was fighting freedom of speech battles all the time. The stories you think are going to send the administrators into fits never do. It's always the small, innocuous pieces.
One time a Fremd student named Jeff Herron wrote a column about how the pencil sharpeners in most of the Fremd classrooms didn't work. Herron's column was funny and true! Assistant principal Joe Keenan was sent up by principal Tom Howard to read me the riot act about Jeff's column. "Why can't you have your students write about the good things at Fremd?" Keenan asked me. "Joe, it's a _______ pencil sharpener!" I responded. "And besides, I'm not going to tell Jeff WHAT to write about--he's a columnist! It's HIS OPINION!" Keenan backed off.
Texanna Edwards' prom dress is no different than Jeff Herron's column or the black arm bands worn by John and Mary Beth Tinker in the Des Moines, Iowa schools back in December of 1965. The Tinker kids wore the black arm bands to protest the Viet Nam War, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor, writing that their suspension from school was a violation of their First Amendment right of freedom of speech.
Since the Tinker case, high school students' rights of freedom of speech have been reduced, most specifically by the 1986 case at Hazelwood East High School in Missouri. The Supreme Court ruled that Cathy Kuhlmeier, the editor of the school's newspaper, could not publish stories that the administration objected to.
We're still living with the ramifications of that Hazelwood case today! Look at Texanna Edwards' case.
If the U.S. Supreme Court can rule in favor of the Westport Baptist Church's protesing at the funerals of dead soldiers, where the protesters yell, "Your son was a fag!" to the soldier's parents and family as they enter the church, then shouldn't the justices offer the same First Amendment protection to Texanna Edwards and other high school students.
I think they should!