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Student Free-Speech Still Unsettled Issue

I thought that the U.S. Supreme Court had made it clear in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District in 1969 that students did not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Yet on Oct. 2, a 15-year-old high school student in the New York City school system was sent home when she refused to change her T-shirt that said "I Enjoy Vagina" ("School sends home bisexual Queens student who wears 'I enjoy vagina' T-shirt," New York Daily News, Oct. 3).

The girl's mother supported her right to wear the T-shirt, claiming that the school was discriminating against her daughter. "She's not hurting anyone. It's her right to wear that shirt." The city's Education Department said that the school's officials have the authority to keep the girl out of class for as long as they want if they disagree with her outfit. The rationale was that the language on the T-shirt was "likely to cause disruption." I wonder what they would do if the girl was caught reading Naomi Wolf's new biography Vagina (Ecco/HarperCollins)?

The high court emphasized that censorship decisions needed to be reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns. In other words, unless school officials can show that language would "materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline," they cannot engage in censorship. Just because language creates "discomfort and unpleasantness" is not enough. Whether the particular words in question would meet the test is open to debate. When I began teaching in 1964, the free speech movement that began in Berkeley had not yet fully manifested itself in high school. Once it did, the principal tried to suppress it, only to find himself overwhelmed by parents. He spent most of his time in a futile attempt to hold back the tide. The principal who replaced him was more realistic. Students were permitted to wear T-shirts that bore outlandish wording far beyond "I Enjoy Vagina." This was in Los Angeles, where the weather was conducive to T-shirts year round. Yet I never experienced any effect on my instruction or on the decorum of my students.

In the final analysis, I think it's important to recognize that community standards differ. What creates a furor in one area of the country results in indifference in another. I'm not talking about speech that constitutes a clear and present danger to the safety of students. But I hardly think that "I Enjoy Vagina" falls into that category in the New York metropolitan area in 2012. If I had a daughter, I would not allow her to wear a T-shirt with those words to school. However, that doesn't mean other daughters shouldn't be permitted to do so.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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