Free Speech or School Safety?


Recently, the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a school which had required a student to remove a shirt upon which he had written anti-gay messages.

Of course, the young boy sued saying that his First Amendment right to free speech had been violated.

In 2004 at Poway High School in Southern California, the school’s gay-straight alliance participated in the “Day of Silence,” a day in which students protest the silence faced by LGBT students and people in society. In response, student & poster child (or poster-twink, lol, as some gay bloggers have humorously said) of the anti-gay “Day of Truth” movement Tyler Chase Harper (pictured right) wore a T-shirt saying “Be Ashamed, our school has embraced what God has condemned,” on the front and “Homosexuality is Shameful, Romans 1:27,” on the back.

According to an editorial by the Washington Post, the Appeal Court disagreed with Tyler Chase Harper and the Alliance Defense Fund, saying:

“Advising a young high school or grade school student while he is in class that he and other gays and lesbians are shameful, and that God disapproves of him strikes at the very core of the young student’s dignity and self-worth.”

The editorial at the Post agreed with the Appeals Court:

Indeed, however heartfelt, this type of speech is poisonous stuff. And we agree that school administrators must have some latitude to prevent in-school speech intended to vilify minority individuals and groups.

But the Post didn’t let the school completely off the hook:

The trouble here is that the school encouraged speech on the other side of a politically charged issue. And as the dissenters point out, it’s a dicey business for schools to be favoring one side of a matter of great and ongoing religious and political controversy. Public schools should not be at once assisting an advocacy group in drawing attention to the plight of gay and lesbian students and forbidding those with deep religious objections from wearing a shirt expressing their feelings.

I don’t think it is too hard to guess where I stand on this issue. I don’t think Tyler Chase Harper should be able to spread messages of hate and prejudice, which he did when he wore that shirt to his school.

At the same time, however, I believe that the school shouldn’t be taking sides in political/religious debates. Although I don’t think Tyler Chase Harper’s original shirt was appropriate, I see nothing that can stop these students from holding a “Day of Truth.”

If the school is going to allow the “Day of Silence,” the logic follows that it must allow the “Day of Truth,” as long as all communication and all messages are done in a non-threatening, non-degrading way.

I say that the communications and messages should be non-threatening and non-degrading because schools MUST be a safe place for all students, regardless of any human difference. Since youth are required to attend elementary, middle and high schools, our public school systems are obligated to make sure that the environment in which these students are forced to work and learn is safe and secure.

At no time should any student feel as though they are not safe in school. A school’s environment should always be conducive to an atmosphere of safe and welcoming learning and education. For a gay student, having someone tell you that God has condemned who you are breaks that atmosphere of safety, an atmosphere a school is obligated to create.

But, alas, it seems as though this case is headed toward the Supreme Court. Only God knows how they will rule or what they will decide. Hopefully, this case might be able to strike some sort of balance between student speech and a school’s obligation to ensure a safe and positive learning environment for all students.


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