Free speech is not an absolute right. In fact, the Supreme Court has held that there are a lot of instances in which speech can be bridled. Insulting speech is not one, but public schools do have the ability to restrict student speech. We often see this with student newspapers.
That should make for an interesting legal battle in the case of a Michigan teacher suspended without pay for removing from his class a student who said he didn’t “accept gays.” To be sure, there is no lawsuit yet between high school teacher Jay McDowell and the Howell school district. But I would be surprised if one doesn’t follow.
Here’s the back story from NPR:
The incident has sparked intense debate in Howell, about 45 miles northwest of Detroit, over defending civil rights without trampling the U.S. Constitution’s right to free speech. It’s gained far wider attention since a local newspaper released video of a 14-year-old gay student from another city defending McDowell at a Howell school board meeting.
On Oct. 20, McDowell told a student in his classroom to remove a belt buckle with the Confederate Flag, the symbol of the southern confederacy that seceded from the United States over slavery, kicking off the Civil War in the 1860s.
She complied, but it prompted a question from a boy about how the flag differs from the rainbow flag, a symbol of pride for the gay community.
“I explained the difference between the flags, and he said, ‘I don’t accept gays,’‘’ said McDowell, 42, who was wearing a shirt with an anti-gay bullying message.
McDowell said he told the student he couldn’t say that in class.
“And he said, ‘Why? I don’t accept gays. It’s against my religion.’ I reiterated that it’s not appropriate to say something like that in class,’’ McDowell said Monday.
Oddly, I don’t think this would have become a free speech issue if McDowell had just thanked the student for his perspective and kindly asked him to withhold such comments from class. Maybe, but I doubt it. And there were certainly other reactions on the spectrum between cheerleading the student’s comment and kicking him out of class over it.
In the above video, another kid defends the teacher’s actions. On a related note, I can’t tell you how many rural towns I’ve heard referred to as the “headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan.”