By Kent Willis, Executive Director
Friday was the ‘Day of Silence’ in which thousands of students across the country decided to protest the denigration of gays and lesbians in our schools by not speaking. Instead of chatting about clothes, politics or iPads, mute students handed out cards arguing against bullying and harassment and for equal treatment of sexual minorities.
At Warhill High School in Virginia, however, there was more. Anti-gay rights students planned a counter-protest today and in the process created a conundrum for school administrators.
As they should, most schools have polices prohibiting harassment and intimidation based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. The counter-protest, presumably staged for the sole purpose of supporting discrimination against gay and lesbian students, would seem to violate these kinds of policies. Yet, the counter-protest is also a perfect example of what the First Amendment is all about -- the right of everyone to exercise their free speech rights, regardless of their viewpoint.
In real life, outside the confines of public school buildings, free speech is nearly absolute. With very few exceptions, the right to speak -- sometimes in the harshest and most impolite of terms -- is protected. Free speech is our most fundamental liberty, and it embodies the vitality and spirit of our nation like nothing else, even if it is sometimes painful to experience.
In public schools, students have free speech, too, but only when it doesn’t disrupt the educational process. So Johnny can wear a political button to school and generally verbalize his views on just about anything he wants in the hallways between classes and at lunch. What Johnny can’t do is quote the Communist Manifesto or Mein Kampf in the middle of Algebra class.
The courts have recognized some other limitations in the school setting, too. Schools are allowed to have rules prohibiting vulgarity or speech that amounts to harassment of other students.
So what should schools do when there are two, presumably non-disruptive, protests planned, one that generally supports school policies and one that does not? Well, it should do what schools do best: teach.
In this case we recommend two lessons.
The first lesson is that the First Amendment is real, and that the government (in this case, the school) cannot show favorites when it comes to students’ viewpoints. The rules that apply for the Day of Silence protestors should be applied exactly the same to the counter-protestors.
But nothing in the First Amendment prevents the school from expressing its own views. Thus, while protecting the free speech rights of protestors and counter-protestors alike, the school can call a student assembly, bring in a speaker, or distribute literature to parents and students about why gay and lesbian students should not be disparaged, harassed, or bullied, but treated equally and with the same respect shown to all other students.
And that’s what we’re asking the principal of Warhill High School to do.
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