Every so often the right to free speech becomes a national issue here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
It’s no wonder. Despite the hype, free speech is not a right people always feel all warm and fuzzy about. Sometimes it’s a downright royal pain in the butt. It means tolerating all sorts of ideas and opinions that we loathe. Just ask the ACLU. Or Juneau, Alaska high school principal Deborah Morse. She freaked big time when Joseph Frederick, a high school student, unfurled a 14-foot “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner as the Winter Olympics torch went by. Morse suspended Frederick. The student got himself a lawyer. Now the case is being heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The right of high school students to express themselves has been debated for decades. One of the most renowned cases was in 1969 when the highest court in the land decided that young people could wear black arm bands to show their opposition to the Vietnam War. The court ruled that students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” However, it left the door open for schools to restrict speech that was “disruptive.”
Many feel “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” is disruptive because it contains an obvious pro-drug message at a time when schools are trying hard to keep students from getting high. “Bong” of course refers to an apparatus used to smoke grass. But free speech proponents, including religious groups who fear that schools could restrict pro-Jesus messages, argue that the student’s expression was well within the definition of free speech.
I agree. I know what it’s like to be a high school student and have my free speech rights limited. In 1968, I joined the school paper at Bishop Neumann High School in South Philly. I was eager to express my views on the burning issues of the day. The first piece I submitted criticized the school’s haircut policy. Basically, if your hair touched the back collar of your shirt, Vice Principal Father Cox would pull you into his office and lop off the offensive locks. I experienced Cox’s scissors first hand on more than one occasion.
The article never made it into print. I tried another topic: The Vietnam War. I was solidly against it. The priest in charge of the paper was solidly against letting my opinion see the light of day. In fact, nothing I wrote in the future would ever make it into print, either.
My services were suddenly no longer needed.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a radical, southern Italian, working-class queer performer, writer and activist whose work can be seen at www.avicollimecca.com.