Monday, October 01, 2007

Banned by Smyrna High

Just about everybody has heard of the Jena Six controversy by now. (Amy Goodman provides some background for those catching up.) Last week some local high school students were told that wearing T-shirts to class in support of the Jena Six was not allowed.

Norma Super and her daughter Dani wore their "Free The Jena Six" T-shirts to a recent Nashville rally. When Dani and some friends wanted to wear their shirts to classes at Smyrna High School, though, they were told that it would be disruptive:

"When I persisted to ask why, the quote was that 'It could cause problems,' "(Norma) Super said. "It's a political statement. I feel strongly about free speech. I feel like (my daughter's) rights were infringed upon.''


The Smyrna High administration treated the T-shirt as a dress code violation because it could have caused disruptions, Rutherford County schools spokesman James Evans said. Earlier that morning a handful of students made racial comments in the hallways, and administrators had to intervene, he said.

Seemingly, Dani Super and her friends should have every right to wear their T-shirts to school and show their support for a cause they care about. On the other hand, a kid wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt to Smyrna High School would undoubtedly be sent straight home and told not to come back until they changed clothes. And there's the rub - I assure you that there are plenty of parents in Smyrna, Tennessee who see nothing wrong with the Confederate flag and would say that if a kid can wear a shirt supporting the Jena Six, their kid ought to be able to proudly wear the Stars and Bars as well.

It's a tough call for school administrators to make. My civil libertarian instincts tell me that we should let the kids wear pretty much what they want on their clothing. But high school is a different place today compared to when I was there 30 years ago. Certain clothes today provide signals to gang members in many schools now. Also, the kids seem more prone to fighting now than they were way back when. Therefore, schools are tempted to ban anything "controversial". But free speech, by its nature, is often going to be controversial. If you say that a kid can't wear a "Free The Jena Six" T-shirt, that's infringing upon their free speech rights. But if you let a kid wear that shirt, then what grounds do you have to keep another kid from wearing the Confederate flag - even if you know a Confederate T-shirt is going to cause trouble?

If you start banning clothing right and left because it might be "disruptive", then you might as well make the kids wear uniforms. Of course, that's how more and more schools are starting to handle this problem.