November 16, 2010
Confronting bigotry in the classroom
One of the latest video messages to have gone viral in the last few weeks’ public fight against anti-gay rhetoric is of openly gay 14-year-old Graeme Taylor speaking at a school board meeting in defense of a teacher who had apparently ejected from class two students who said that they “did not support gay individuals” during a discussion, on Anti-Bullying Day, that erupted after he’d asked another student to remove her Confederate flag belt buckle. The teacher was then suspended without pay for a day.
Sound like a First Amendment quagmire yet?
Graeme eloquently defends his former teacher, saying he was driven to a suicide attempt at age nine in large part by anti-gay slanders by classmates that long went accepted and unchallenged by teachers. The teacher says that he ejected the students for being disruptive, not for their stated opposition to supporting gay people, and I tend to believe him.
But…suppose that the students were telling the truth, that they only expressed their personal opposition to support for gays, calmly, non-threateningly and non-disruptively. Would their ejection have been a violation of their free speech rights? How should the teacher have handled the discussion?
Doesn’t the First Amendment protect even–especially–the most unpopular of speech?
Yes, I would say, IF the students in question merely expressed a position, as vile and unfortunate a position as I find it, then the teacher did wrong to punish them rather than guiding the conversation to a useful and potentially enlightening conclusion…even though he was right, doubtless in the eyes of some of his most vulnerable students, to oppose the sentiments as strongly as he was able to in the moment.
As much as I despise the opinion that gay people (or black people, Gypsies, Muslims, whoever) are morally inferior, in my understanding, the right of free speech applies equally to these sentiments. We don’t allocate the First Amendment’s protection based on the popularity of the content of the speech. So long as the speech does not constitute an explicit or implicit threat, well, people have the right to dislike whomever they dislike, whether or not their reasoning sucks.
But students also need to learn that the right of “free speech” does not mean the right of unchallenged or consequence-free speech, that just because their prejudice may be a religious belief doesn’t disallow opposition to it, and that if they choose to express their bigotry, they should expect to be strenuously challenged. Banning or punishing such speech (again, as long as it’s not actually a threat) will only give the bigots confirmation for their whine that they’re being oppressed by the fascist liberal homosexual agenda or something. Simply suppressing it doesn’t allow us to openly challenge it, to reveal its ugliness and violence for what it is, to discredit it with facts, or to show that the positions of acceptance and respect are stronger. Teachers are in an optimal position to do these things, and more importantly, to show their students how to do them.
Graeme Taylor has eloquence, grace, and self-possession of which I could only be passionately envious at his age; there will be no one more suited to take up the task than he will be. I’m sorry that he’ll have to. I shudder for his opponents to think of what he’ll be like to oppose in debate in a few years.