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Yes, the First Amendment applies to everyone

By Thomas L. Jipping
web posted May 28, 2001

In Woodbury, Minnesota, the principal of Woodbury High School ordered student Elliot Chambers to remove a shirt with the message "Straight Pride" on it. As the Supreme Court said in a 1971 case involving a jacket bearing the message "F**K the Draft," this case "may seem at first blush too inconsequential to find its way into our books, but the issue it presents is of no small constitutional significance." Ditto.

Woodbury High School is progressive, tolerant, diverse, and oh so inclusive. In fact, rather than simply being tolerant and inclusive, Woodbury High School makes a point of demonstrating its tolerance, practically shouting it to the world. We all know the most visible, efficient way of proving tolerance these days is to be pro-homosexual and, sure enough, Woodbury High School has designated classrooms called "safe zones" where homosexuals can gather. School staff volunteer to be in these rooms, which are complete with posters bearing those pink triangles, to hand out propaganda, er, literature from homosexual advocacy groups.

Now I know what you are thinking. Using school facilities, school staff, and such in this way would not be at all tolerant or inclusive if it applied only to homosexuals. In other words, being tolerant and inclusive would require that those with another sexual preference - such as, say, heterosexuals - also be allowed to express themselves. Otherwise, the school would simply be pro-homosexual.

Along comes Elliot Chambers. Elliot came to school in a shirt that said "Straight Pride." The principal banned Elliot from wearing it because a few homosexual students were offended by it. Now if the school were truly tolerant and inclusive, the principal would have told those homosexual students that they were entitled to their views and opinions but since the school was truly tolerant and inclusive, Elliot was entitled to his as well. But apparently the school is not truly tolerant and inclusive.

And besides that, there's this thing called the First Amendment which applies to public schools. Back in 1971, in a case involving someone with "F**k the Draft" on their jacket instead of "Straight Pride" on their shirt, the Supreme Court opened its opinion with this line: "This case may seem at first blush too inconsequential to find its way into our books, but the issue it presents is of no small constitutional significance." The same was true when Elliot and his parents took their case to court.

Just two years earlier, in the 1969 case titled Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, senior and junior high school students wanted to wear black armbands to school protesting the Vietnam War. The school said they would be disruptive, spark violence, or otherwise interfere with school activities. The Supreme Court said: "It can hardly be argued that...students...shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." I think that would apply to Elliot.

When Elliot and his parents went to court, U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank ruled in his favor and issued an injunction against the school. It appears this judge - a Clinton appointee, no less - understands that the First Amendment applies to everyone. Yet the fact that school officials apparently believe that tolerance and inclusion are a one-way street, protecting the preferred and punishing the disfavored, should send chills up the spine of every freedom-loving American.

When confronted with this obvious double-standard, Elliot's principal said she thought the shirt would incite violence. Guns don't kill people, people kill people. Cars don't run red lights, people run red lights. Shirts don't incite violence, people incite violence. The Supreme Court in Tinker said: "There is here no evidence whatever of petitioners' interference, actual or nascent, with the schools' work or of collision with the rights of other students to be secure and to be let alone.... Any word spoken, in class, in the lunchroom, or on the campus, that deviates from the views of another person may start an argument or cause a disturbance. But our Constitution says we must take this risk."

This is how our freedom is being turned into a weapon against us. Remember those speech codes in universities that ban certain speech or certain views by labeling them "harassment"? The same thing is going on here. Whatever happened to "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it?" It has become "If I disagree with what you say, you may not say it." That's not free speech, that's not fairness, that's not tolerance, that's not inclusion. Watch out folks, if this can happen in schools, it can happen anywhere.

Thomas L. Jipping is Vice-President for Legal Policy at the Free Congress Foundation.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • The right not to be offended? by Scott Tibbs (June 26, 2000)
    Scott Tibbs discusses the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision banning prayer before football games and what he thinks the Founders really meant
  • I am ashamed to be an IU alumnus by Scott Tibbs (April 24, 2000)
    Indiana University is a defender of free speech, says Scott Tibbs, so long as it agrees with the speech. The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform found that out during the first week of April

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