This column appeared in the Laurel Leader Call (Laurel, MS) on May 22, 2012:
“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” So said Thomas Jefferson, the architect of American liberty and its greatest champion. Throughout his entire life, he fought every attempt by government to control the lives of the people, in thought, speech, and deed.
Today we should be just as vigilant, whether a form of tyranny originates in Washington, Jackson, or the local schoolhouse. We must be ever mindful that state and local governments can be just as tyrannical as Washington, DC.
Recently, the principal at South Jones Elementary School, in my hometown of Ellisville, Mississippi, told a student, Jordan Griffith, to turn his t-shirt, depicting a Marine Corps slogan, inside out. On the shirt’s front appeared the frontal image of a bulldog, the Marine Corps mascot, with the phrase “If you are not the lead dog….” On the back of the shirt appeared the image of the backside of the bulldog, with the saying “…the view never changes.”
The t-shirt extolled the virtue of leadership, which is something I would think we might want to instill in our young people. But school officials thought differently.
Those who supported the school’s decision expressed concern that the dog was “pantless,” with male genitalia in clear view, an opinion I do not share, nor do many others. This weak and pathetic argument was all the school’s principal could stand on.
Compounding the problem is the school’s dress code, which is extraordinarily vague, essentially putting any decision directly in the hands of a school official, or, if you will, a government bureaucrat.
This case, though, involves more than the rear end of a bulldog, but our most basic liberties as free people, that of freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Either our rights are inalienable, the gift of Almighty God, and can never be taken away, or they are granted by the government and can be stripped from us at the whim of a government official. There is no gray area here. It is all one way or all the other.
As freedom-loving Americans, we know and have always believed that our freedoms are sacred, inalienable, and protected by the Constitution. They come from God and therefore cannot be taken away by government.
In the case of public schools, the United States Supreme Court has agreed.
In 1969, the Court ruled, in the case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, that the First Amendment to the Constitution applied to public schools. The case involved three teenage students who decided to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The school, fearing a disruption, told the students to remove them or be suspended, which was really no choice at all.
The Court sided with the students in a 7 to 2 vote. “In wearing armbands, the petitioners were quiet and passive,” wrote the majority. “They were not disruptive, and did not impinge upon the rights of others. In these circumstances, their conduct was within the protection of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth.”
The justices continued, “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.”
As conservatives, we have come to loathe the Warren Court but in this instance they got it right, and the Tinker Test is still used by the Court to determine if the rights of students have been violated.
But is there a limit to free speech? Actually there is. You are responsible for your actions, even if they are just words. Intruding on the rights of others, or inciting riots with violent rhetoric, is not protected speech. If a student wore a shirt to school that disparaged a particular group of kids and called for violence against them, this would be cause for disciplinary action.
As the old adage goes, “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.” But that statement is not entirely true. You can yell fire in a crowded theater…if there is, in fact, a fire. But to do so in order to cause a commotion that injures others is not within your basic rights as an American.
But Jordan Griffith’s t-shirt, given to him by an older brother fighting for our sacred rights in Afghanistan, did not even come close to the level of inciting violence. School officials violated his First Amendment rights without question.
We simply cannot tolerate government officials, on any level, controlling our thoughts and our speech, and should fight for our rights each and every day, or we face a tyrannical future without them.
Jefferson’s personal motto was “Rebellion to tyranny is obedience to God,” a slogan that graced his personal seal. We should all take it as our own.