The question of whether children have constitutional rights, and if so, which, is a fraught one.
But one thing we ought to be able to agree on is that children have something like an absolute right to peaceful political expression. First of all, there is no reason why they shouldn’t.
And second, there is no better way to prepare people to be citizens of a democracy than to respect and protect their political expression.
Consider the case of Katie Sierra. The tenth grader at Sissonville High School in West Virginia wore home-made t-shirts that featured the “anarchy” circle-a symbol, and anti-war messages such as “When I saw the dead and dying Afghani children on TV, I felt a newly recovered sense of national security. God Bless America.”
Sierra’s suspension went to court, and on July 12, a jury decided that though Sierra was within her rights to form the club, she could legitimately be suspended for the messages, which the administration had held would disrupt the education of other students.
When I was in ninth grade, I myself was suspended repeatedly for putting out an “underground” newspaper, of similar spirit. The justification was the same as it was with Katie: the paper was “disruptive.”
The idea that dissident political expression is disruptive is the code and the canard of pitiful itsy bitsy Mussolinis of the kind who run so many of America’s public schools. That a jury could support the decision of Sissonville High School’s sad little martinets just shows how wide is the incomprehension with which basic Americans regard basic American principles.
One thing should be screamingly obvious: Sierra’s shirts were contributions to rather than disruptions of the educational process. The idea that education involves, say, repeating the Pledge of Allegiance by rote, but that it cannot tolerate dissent is surely an idiocy worthy only of totalitarianism.
Schools are, for better or worse, government institutions: institutions of a democracy. They are public property, and must be held open to the most freewheeling possible political expression, both to educate the citizens of a democracy and to preserve basic democratic principles. There should be no safer space in the world for the peaceful expression of principles than American schools.
Education, one would hope, has something to do with truth. And it is the basic idea of democracy – the basic idea of the founders of the American republic – that the best guarantor of truth is the widest possible and freest possible debate. That is as true in the tenth grade as in the U.S. Congress.
The notion that truth is reached by the repression of dissent is the kind of claptrap that is believed – or at least implemented – by dictators and high school administrators.
There is absolutely no pedagogical or political justification for the repression of Sierra’s t-shirts, whether you disagree or agree with them. And the sort of “disruption” that they cause is synonymous with education in a free society.
Katie Sierra is an American hero.
Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.