Narrow-minded, my-way-is-right stubbornness is gnawing away our core values during this era of polarized everything. Not just listening only to those who tell us we’re right, but echoing the shouts that another way of thinking, the Other Side, is … well … intolerable.
Caught in the cross fire of this adult spitting match are the young, those of high school age and younger who should be learning how to be productive citizens. Instead, if they’re not seeing or hearing or reading about adult Americans spewing venom, they’re being vilified themselves when they exercise their rights as citizens.
We’ve had a litany of examples.
Thanks to social media and salivating cable commentators, Kentucky high school student Nick Sandmann was recently attacked for saying nothing. But the hat he wore, his facial expression, and the elderly Native American he faced overshadowed the fact that he was just one of hundreds of demonstrators with diverse messages. Punish or praise the student? It depends which side you’re on.
In a controversy closer to home also involving Native Americans, this issue — whether the Redskins nickname for the Neshaminy High School’s sports teams is racially offensive — is before the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Adults who were intolerant when students chose to stop using the hurtful word in the student newspaper now argue that everyone should tolerate continued use of the word.
Let’s not forget that students at Neshaminy High who chose not to speak were punished by school officials. Administrators put intimidating pressure on editors of the school’s newspaper when they decided in 2013 not to use the word “Redskins” in their publication. When the editors stuck by their beliefs, the principal suspended the journalism teacher for two days without pay, removed the editor from her position for a month, and cut $1,200 from the newspaper’s student activities fund. What a civics lesson that is!
Through the midterm elections, we’ve seen the resolve of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who have loudly advocated for tougher gun regulations since the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. Their citizenship lesson has come in the face of rebuke and ridicule from adults and lawmakers opposed to these students’ beliefs.
Censorship of the student press has been a constant threat in the 30 years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s school-friendly ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. Students have had to rely on another Supreme Court ruling — one decided 50 years ago. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the court said that students — even eighth-grader Mary Beth Tinker, who wore a black armband to support a truce in the Vietnam War — have constitutional rights. And school officials who oppose the message cannot suspend students who peacefully express personal beliefs.
And we can go back farther to see how the high court defended student speech and called for tolerance. The 1943 Supreme Court case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette involved two grade-school sisters punished for silently expressing themselves. Marie and Gathie, daughters of Jehovah’s Witness parents, were expelled from school for not pledging allegiance to the flag. The court protected such symbolic speech.
Whether speaking loudly but respectfully or silently expressing their beliefs , high school students have to fight harder than they should while learning to be active, engaged students. On January 30, student journalists across the country will spread this message during Student Press Freedom Day. They will join the Student Press Law Center of Washington and speak out in defense of free-speech rights that the Supreme Court, and common sense, tell us deserve protection and encouragement.
In today’s atmosphere of intolerance, we should heed the guidance of a 1972 federal Court of Appeals ruling during the protest years of the Vietnam War. Condemning school censorship, the appellate court echoed the Supreme Court’s sentiment in the student-rights Tinker ruling:
“One of the great concerns of our time is that our young people, disillusioned by our political processes, are disengaging from political participation. It is most important that our young become convinced that our Constitution is a living reality, not parchment under glass.”
Thomas Eveslage is a professor emeritus of Journalism who taught law and ethics at Temple University. He served on governing bodies of the Student Press Law Center, the Pennsylvania School Press Association, Quill and Scroll Foundation, and the Journalism Education Association.