Sunday, June 25, 2017

Free Expression Matters: NJ.com Goes 2 for 2

A recent editorial on NJ.com, the on-line presence of a consortium of New Jersey newspapers including the (Newark) Star-Ledger (whose editorial board was responsible for the opinion piece in question) and the Times of Trenton, called attention to two cases of what they describe as “suppressing free speech in schools.” Both cases, Curmie was not surprised to learn, involve President Trump.

Liam Shea's graphics project.
One of the stories involves a Morristown High School student whose portrait of the President as a pig-snouted, hooved, semi-human holding a clearly very unhappy cat (“grabbing the pussy”?) in front of a burning American flag (or is that the sun?) was removed from a student art exhibit because, you know, there were complaints. In the other story, a yearbook advisor at Wall Township High School removed a quote from Mr. Trump from the profile of one student and had the photos of two other students airbrushed to remove Trump campaign logos and slogans. NJ.com gets it right: free speech trumps (ahem) other concerns. Let’s look at these stories in the order the editorial presents them.

Morristown junior Liam Shea actually had two pieces removed from his high school’s art and design show. One was the porcine presidential portrait the accompanies this blog piece; the other showed Mr. Trump on a missile, taking a selfie. The decision to remove the two items from the show was apparently made by Principal Mark Manning whom Shea quotes as saying, “I appreciate the risk you took, and it’s very well done … but other people weren’t too happy with this.” Manning, as cowards generally do, declined comment when contacted by the press.

Problem is, the Constitution doesn’t just go away when some local school official finds it inconvenient. (Here’s where Curmie notes that he is no Constitutional scholar, but, as a beloved mentor once told him in a discussion of whether Curmie had the requisite knowledge to teach a course on the periphery of his skill set, I know something, and I can read.) The “Tinker test,” named for the criteria established by the Supreme Court in their landmark Tinker v. Des Moines decision, remains the standard by which such cases must be administered. Here are a couple of snippets from that ruling:
First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate….
In order for the State in the person of school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint. Certainly where there is no finding and no showing that engaging in the forbidden conduct would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school,” the prohibition cannot be sustained.
If Mr. Manning cannot maintain “appropriate discipline” because a high school kid created a graphics design that some folks don’t like, it’s time to step down.

Moreover, completely apart from the censorship being completely unexplained except as a sop to some unspecified someone’s tender sensibilities, the Trump portrait started as a class assignment to create a political cartoon! Curmie’s experience in the visual arts is somewhat limited, but he suspects that it is rather difficult to create a political cartoon that isn’t… erm… political. Shea’s mother says she thinks the image is clever rather than offensive. Curmie agrees. But here’s the key point: it doesn’t matter if Ms. Shea and Curmie are “right” or not about the aesthetic merit or indeed the intent of the work. It was chosen, presumably by an art teacher, to be included in the exhibition, and Mr. Manning capitulated to the complaints of a handful of whiners (Curmie thought it was lefties who are supposed to be the snowflakes) because he lacks an understanding of free expression, he has no backbone, or both.

The irony, of course, is that the graphic has now achieved far greater distribution and publicity than it possibly could have were it to have been treated as one hopes and trusts a similar editorial in the student newspaper would have been: essentially ignored. Young Mr. Shea himself understands that point very clearly. Interviewed by the local press, he burbled, “Me, I think it’s great. If it wasn’t taken down, I wouldn’t be talking to you!” And (of course) now that there’s some notoriety attached to the image, there’s talk of t-shirts sales and similar marketing. Ah, the entrepreneurial spirit! Donald Trump would be proud.

The politics of the Wall High case are different, of course. This time, it appears to be a left-leaning yearbook advisor who decided that supporting Donald Trump was a bridge too far in the whole “free expression” game. The key word in the preceding sentence, of course, is “appears,” as the teacher in question, Susan Parsons, has not—as far as Curmie can determine, at least—revealed her motives.

If we lived in a sane world, the fact that Ms. Parsons was suspended for her actions would tell us all we need to know about the story. We do not live in a sane world. We do know two things. First, the decision appears to have been made by the advisor, either with the tacit approval of student editors or, more likely, without their knowledge. Second, and significantly, there is nothing in the school’s policies that prohibits political expression on students’ clothing. The dress code is sexist, prudish, and a vestige of 1957, but whereas boys can’t have hair over the collar (seriously!), they can wear a t-shirt with writing on it to class, provided it meets some pretty basic standards (it isn’t lewd, doesn’t promote tobacco use, that kind of thing). Many schools would prohibit wearing a Trump campaign shirt (or a Clinton campaign shirt, or a Ragpicker for President shirt like the one Curmie’s production of The Madwoman of Chaillot used as a “show shirt” in the fall of 2012); this one doesn’t.

Wall High School junior Grant Berardo in his Trump shirt,
before and after the photo was adulterated.
Still, it’s a pretty stupid thing to wear—not because it’s a Trump shirt, but because this appears to be a semi-official school photograph, and wearing a t-shirt with writing on it (any writing on it) is really dressing down for the occasion. It would have been reasonable for Ms. Parsons, with or perhaps even without the input of upper administration, to insist (hypothetically) that for all personally submitted photographs (i.e., those taken by the yearbook staff) boys must be wearing shirt and tie, or that no legible writing appear, or whatever. 

Such a policy would be legitimate if and only if it was applied evenly (no Trump shirts means no Hillary shirts) and students had appropriate warnings that a specific submitted photograph would be altered (so that they’d have a chance to choose a different photo). This same strategy could have been employed by that Utah school a couple of years ago when school officials unilaterally and without warning covered those lust-inducing adolescent shoulders in a sloppy Photoshop job to protect us all from… well… something. The details here are different, but the essence is the same: most people will go along with even a stupid policy if you tell them what you’re doing and you give them the chance to make the problem at least a little less bad in their eyes.

None of that appears to have happened here. What’s worse is that the doctored photos aren’t even the most problematic element at play here. That dubious distinction would go to the decision to eliminate a Trump quote from the photo accompanying the freshman class president. Assuming that including such quotations is standard procedure for the yearbook, then striking the words of the President of the United States, no matter how wrong you think they are, no matter how insincere you think they are, no matter your opinion of the source: this is remarkably stupid behavior, and a suspension is indeed warranted.

The distinction is that whereas a Trump t-shirt could be considered inappropriate even if it didn’t violate the dress code, quotations abound in virtually every high school yearbook ever published, and eliminating one and only one such bromide without rationale or warning is just dumb.

The NJ.com editorial concludes thus: “Free expression for one requires free expression for all. That's true of the student in Wall, and the student in Morristown. And students everywhere must carefully weigh the lessons being taught in both places.” Well done, lads and lasses at NJ.com. Well done.

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