Whose Right Is Right?

A story made the rounds in Chicago recently about a high school senior who wore a shirt with a picture of an AK-47 on it. The school principal felt that the shirt violated the dress code against “disruptive clothing” and asked the boy to turn it inside out or face a one day suspension. The boy chose suspension, then appealed to the school board. The school board overruled the principal.

The controversy raised a lot of issues about dress codes, gun culture and freedom of expression. To me, there was no clear cut answer about who was right and who was wrong here. As you might imagine, others felt differently. A discussion erupted on a friend’s FB page and one comment in particular stuck with me, “Speaking as a middle school teacher who works in a building where loaded guns, knives, and drugs have been found in lockers and on students, we need to make a strong statement and damn someone’s right to free speech. What about the right to feel 100% safe at school!”

I don’t know this woman, she’s a relative of a friend, and I feel for her. I agree that guns should not be at schools. I feel horrible that a middle school teacher does not feel safe at work. But, I’m not sure that she actually has a right to “feel 100% safe at school.” She has the right to be 100% safe at school, but is that the same thing as “feeling” safe?

It sounds like ridiculous hair splitting, but then I read this recent article from the New York Times. On various college campuses, student groups want certain works of literature, film, and art to come with trigger warnings. As one example given, The Great Gatsby would now come with a warning that says it contains, “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.” The Merchant of Venice would come with a warning about anti-semitism, naturally.

The reality of the college classroom is that if a non-tenured professor (as more and more college teachers are) posts a syllabus with multiple “trigger warnings” that professor runs a very real risk of losing his or her job.

At Wellesley College recently students said they felt threatened by a piece of sculpture showing a man in his underwear.  No one claimed that the statue was threatening them, but rather that they felt threatened.

I am bothered. I am bothered that schools are not safe for students or teachers. I am bothered by high rates of rape on campuses and guns being found in middle schools. But I am also bothered that people feel the solution to these problems is to shut down conversation, to post warnings on literature and to ban photos of weapons.

I am bothered that people feel free speech should take a back seat to their feelings.

Free speech is perhaps the messiest of our rights. Free speech allows Nazis to march in Skokie, it allows abortion protesters to show graphic photos of fetuses to women undergoing medical procedures. But, free speech also allows people to speak truth to power and to create art. Free speech keeps the Internet in business.

Safety is important. Feeling safe is important, but so is feeling safe to speak your mind.





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