By Jonathan Zimmerman

Here's the type of question few are asking about the controversy at Philadelphia's Charles Carroll High School: What if student Samantha Pawlucy's T-shirt had read "Homosexuality is Shameful"?

We all know the answer: She would have been forced to change her shirt or go home. And most of us would be fine with that - which tells you all you need to know about the sorry state of free speech in American schools.

Pawlucy became a cause célèbre after teacher Lynette Gaymon criticized her for wearing a Romney-Ryan T-shirt in a "Democratic school." Gaymon, an African American, said it would be akin to her wearing a Ku Klux Klan shirt. The teacher's implication was clear: You can't challenge the accepted wisdom of your tribe when you're at school.

On that score alone, Gaymon was right. Anyone who thinks otherwise should consider the case of Tyler Harper, who wore the infamous "Homosexuality is Shameful" T-shirt to his California high school in 2004.

Harper's shirt cited Romans 1:27, a scriptural passage that appears to denounce homosexuality. In protest of "Day of Silence" activities organized by his school's Gay-Straight Alliance to promote tolerance of sexual diversity, Harper's shirt also declared, "Be ashamed, our school embraced what God has condemned." When school officials asked him to remove his shirt, Harper refused - just as Samantha Pawlucy did last month.

Tailoring Tinker

But here's where their stories diverge: As soon as the Pawlucy news broke, politicians and others across the political spectrum invoked her free-speech rights and condemned her teacher for violating them.

Harper didn't get the same respect - or, in the end, the same rights. Punished by the school, he filed a lawsuit citing the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), which held that students should be allowed to wear antiwar armbands to school. The court declared that students do not "shed their constitutional rights ... at the schoolhouse gate"; officials could limit student speech only if they could show that it would "substantially interfere with the work of the school."

But a federal court turned Harper away in 2007, insisting that his antigay message infringed on the rights of other students - namely, homosexual students. Since then, courts across the country have barred kids from wearing T-shirts with antigay statements or Confederate flags, which threaten to offend African Americans.

But a lot of speech offends someone - and not just the people you might think. I'm not gay, but I'm deeply offended by the message of Harper's shirt. Ditto for the Confederate flag, even though I'm not black.

And like Lynette Gaymon, I don't much care for Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan. So why should Pawlucy have the right to offend my sensibilities, while Harper doesn't?

Real courage

To the court that ruled against Harper, the answer lay in the openly bigoted content of his shirt, and its potential effect on a vulnerable minority. "Public school students who may be injured by verbal assaults on the basis of a core identifying characteristic such as race, religion, or sexual orientation have a right to be free from such attacks while on school campuses," the court declared. Any such speech threatens to "damage their sense of security" and "destroy their self-esteem."

But what happens when one minority offends another? Imagine a recent immigrant from the Muslim world debating same-sex marriage in an American classroom. If he denounced gay unions as a sin against his religion, would he be muzzled as Harper was?

Why should we assume that some people need special protection from distasteful speech? In the guise of defending minorities, these restrictions actually patronize them. And they make a mockery of Tinker, which emphasized the rights of students to exercise free speech, not to be shielded from it.

That brings us back to Samantha Pawlucy, who returned to school Tuesday amid a whirl of cameras and reporters. She was hailed as a courageous warrior for free speech, and rightly so. I'm proud of her for standing up to her teacher, who was clearly out of line.

But if we wanted to show real courage as adults, we would let our kids wear their opinions on their chests - and their hearts on their sleeves - any way they want. Some feathers might get ruffled, and some feelings would get hurt. But the best cure for offensive speech is more speech, and you're never too young to start learning that.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press).