Free speech limited in schools, but not in society

Monday, the Supreme Court did not hear an appeal surrounding freedom of expression in public schools, continuing to fuel the debate regarding student rights. 

The controversy first arose after students at Live Oak High School in California wore American flag T-shirts to school on Cinco de Mayo in 2010, as reported in Newsweek. The principal and vice principal demanded the students to either remove and replace the shirts or wear them inside-out. 

Those who did not comply, which totaled two of the four students, were told to leave school for the day. The situation escalated to the point that three of the offending students sued the school district on the grounds that their constitutional rights were infringed upon. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the school was in its full rights to send the students home in order to avoid ethnic violence. 

It should be noted that in Tinker v. Des Moines, the Court upheld the constitutional rights of students while also giving school officials much more capacity to govern free speech than the federal government. In this case, the Court allowed students to wear armbands in defiance of the Vietnam War — granted that school officials did not expect any serious derailment of the school day.

This is where the case from Live Oak High becomes more complicated, and where context is necessary. If not aware of the whole story, it is easy to say the school officials were clearly hampering the free speech of some patriotic Americans. 

However, according to the Washington Post, Live Oak has a history of racial violence, including threats that occurred on the previous year’s Cinco de Mayo. 

In this way, the patriotic T-shirts are a form of symbolic speech, but they could also very well cause unrest in the learning environment.  The fact that the four students were wearing them together, all on a national holiday such as Cinco de Mayo, does give their actions some potentially racist tones, even if possibly unintended. 

In order to protect the student body at large, the school administration at Live Oak High chose the option most likely to maintain order. At some point, society must have at least a little faith that those in power can make reasonable decisions for the safety of others. 

Perhaps the only further step would be for administration to end the Cinco de Mayo celebrations altogether, as a way to prevent racial violence, until the school can find a better long-term solution for all involved. If racial tensions are really so strong at Live Oak, no celebration might be the best celebration. 

However, in the world beyond academia, society must be careful how many restrictions it is willing to have placed on freedom of speech in the name of security. Protecting minors in an educational setting is one thing — freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and freedom of expression in the political realm is quite another. For the school’s administration, it is a delicate balancing act of safety and personal freedoms, which has to be applied to individual situations.

Chelsea Mulligan is a freshman majoring in international studies.