Column for January 15, 2006
“A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.”
Once again, Burleson (the city of characters) makes the news! And it’s high time, too; jokes about our neighbor to the north’s ham-fisted prosecution of a woman selling what we refer to in a family newspaper as marital aids were starting to fall off the radar. No, this time the school district that turned a bronze cast of a bull elk into a gelding for fear of giving offense is recognized for disciplining two teenage girls who wanted to display Confederate battle flags on their persons at school. This incident even merited mention in a great metropolitan newspaper to the north of Burleson which typically only notices Johnson County if a major crime has been committed here or there’s some opportunity to make fun of us, whereas every dog that gets run over in Parker County or Denton County receives lavish coverage. But back to the Civil War. I tend to be an absolutist when it comes to Free Speech; I think that particular freedom probably more than any other in the Constitution has prevented our country from collapsing into anarchy or dictatorship over the last two hundred years or so (keeping in mind that George W. Bush still has three years left in office). I also tend to have little patience for people who labor under the delusion that the Constitution somehow protects them from ever having to see or hear anything they consider offensive. On the contrary, as I’ve said many times, the First Amendment virtually guarantees that you will be offended by something somebody else says or thinks, probably on a daily basis. The same First Amendment that protects Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letters from the Birmingham Jail,” also protects the right of pathetic Nazi wannabes to march through a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois. It protects the right of that ignorant loud-mouth Ann Coulter to shrilly call for the execution of liberals who displease her, and for the loathsome fake Native American Ward Churchill to compare the victims of 9-11 to Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichman. So, my normal response to people who claim to be “offended” by someone else’s Free Speech is “don’t read it, listen to it, or watch it!”
This situation, however, is a little different, since it involves minors in a school environment. I don’t agree with the Supreme Court that students give up nearly all their constitutional rights just by walking through the schoolhouse door, and Burleson’s code against “offensive displays” is pretty broad. Let’s also assume for the sake of giving the benefit of the doubt, that both these girls were genuinely ignorant of the fact that many people (and not just African-Americans) equate the Confederate battle flag with racism, slavery and the Ku Klux Klan. Although apparently, at least according to the article in that other newspaper, one of the girls has now learned to parrot the tired cliché that the flag represents “heritage not hate” and she was evidently unaware of the Texas Ordinance of Secession which explicitly stated that secession was done to preserve slavery and white supremacy until it was read to her by a nosy member of the elite liberal media conspiracy. He could also have quoted the words of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens or any of a number of other sources to rebut the ludicrous revisionist fantasy that the Civil War was not “about slavery.” That’s another column all by itself though; putting all that aside and assuming these girls had no malicious intent, no political ax to grind, and were at worst naïve, does that give them the right to wear the Confederate battle flag to school? I say “no” and here’s why: if these girls can wear the Confederate battle flag because they think it represents “heritage not hate,” how could we ban another student from wearing a swastika? Or another student from wearing a satanic pentagram? I don’t say that to equate the Confederacy with Nazi Germany or Satanism (because that’s an asinine comparison), but to prove the point that if you allow one student to display his or her controversial symbol, you have to let everyone else display theirs and that ends up distracting the kids from what should be their primary purpose for attending high school; namely, looking cool in the latest designer clothes and trying to impress members of the opposite sex. And also learning. I agree that “speech codes” and “sensitivity” can quickly become ludicrous. After all, I could argue that my children are offended by Chief Wahoo (the appallingly racist stereotype cartoon mascot of the Cleveland Indians) and the professional football club from Washington, DC, named after a racist slur; does that mean I could get the school district to ban the other kids from wearing football or baseball jerseys? And if these girls had gotten in trouble for, say, wearing a political campaign t-shirt, my opinion would be different (even if it was a Rob Orr t-shirt). But as long as Burleson ISD is applying this policy evenly, and not showing favoritism for one point of view or the other, I have to stand with the administrators on this one. Unfortunately, space doesn’t permit going into the whole touchy issue of the Confederate legacy in the south, but it is (as Abraham Lincoln would say) altogether fitting and proper that we discuss an issue that reveals the still sore spot of race relations in America on this day, right before the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.