- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2001

Schoolchildren throughout the country begin each day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, but school administrators are discovering this practice has its risks. Many students, it seems, actually believe that stuff about liberty and justice for all to the point of assuming they have liberties that may be exercised, even during school.

Heaven knows, countless schools have labored to eradicate this notion. Public school pupils have come to understand that their lockers may be searched, their urine chemically analyzed, their persons and belongings inspected by metal detectors, their backpacks and trench coats banned, and their words scrutinized for any hints of violent intent.

The zero-tolerance approach, also known as the zero-thought approach, has yet to run out of steam, even though it frequently turns school officials into targets of ridicule. Recently, a Maine girl got expelled for taking a Tylenol. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma went to court last year on behalf of a 15-year-old girl exiled for 15 days for allegedly putting a hex on a teacher. In Florida, an honor student was suspended last month for five days after someone spotted a steak knife in her car in the school parking lot.

Some kids just never learn. They continue to operate under the delusion that in supervising youngsters, school officials will formulate sensible rules and then apply them sensibly. Some students also endeavor to think for themselves, without first clearing those thoughts with responsible adults. When that happens, they are asking for trouble.

The most conspicuous current example can be found in the South, where dozens of districts have adopted dress codes forbidding students from displaying Confederate emblems. The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia is representing nine students in Seminole County who were threatened with punishment for wearing T-shirts adorned with the rebel battle flag.

Never mind that school rooms across Georgia have displayed exactly the same symbol which happens to be incorporated into the state flag. If school officials want to brazenly exhibit a Confederate symbol, they´re allowed to. But letting students do the same thing of their own free will is another matter entirely.

Lawyers for the Seminole school district say they have nothing but good intentions. The student body is evenly divided between black and white students, and many African-Americans understandably find Confederate emblems offensive.

The district, says attorney Sam Harben Jr., has the right to prohibit any student expression "that is disruptive of schools, or that presents a safety threat to other students." Black students, he notes, have long been prohibited from wearing T-shirts with racial slogans or homages to Malcolm X, and for the same reason.

Based on what the Supreme Court has said, it´s true that the school district has a perfect right to restrict student speech to prevent riots, brawls and general unrest. But the school district can´t ban any form of expression it wants just on the off-chance that it might generate a hostile reaction. Wearing a slogan or symbol on a shirt is a form of expression that has some protection even in the halls of a public school. And absent some genuine likelihood of significant trouble, administrators are obligated to swallow hard, grit their teeth and put up with it.

That was the verdict in a landmark 1969 decision known as Tinker vs. Des Moines, which involved two youngsters suspended for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. "There is no indication that the work of the schools or any class was disrupted," noted the justices, overturning the suspension. "Outside the classroom, a few students made hostile remarks to the students wearing armbands, but there were no threats or acts of violence on school premises." Since there were no grounds to think the armbands would provoke unrest, there were no grounds for the school to ban them.

By the Seminole district´s own admission, Confederate flag shirts, which were only recently forbidden, have never caused any detectable trouble. The rule was drafted just to head off the simple possibility that someday, they would. Idle anxiety, however, is not enough to nullify the free speech rights that, in this country, even juveniles enjoy.

Confederate flags and Malcolm X shirts may be vile and loathsome to many people, but then so were anti-war symbols, back when hundreds of American soldiers were bleeding to death in the jungles of Vietnam. The Constitution´s free speech clause doesn´t include only those who have nothing controversial to say. School officials can´t censor certain types of expression just because it´s going to make someone mad.

Since Columbine, though, many school administrators would rather create a totalitarian environment than take any risk. Back in 1969, the Supreme Court announced, "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights … at the schoolhouse gate." In fact, school administrators make that argument all the time. This time, they may be wrong.


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