This is a terrific speech given by 14-year-old Ann Arbor student Graeme Taylor who is defending Howell High School teacher Jay McDowell, who was disciplined after throwing out two students for anti-gay statements. The controversy, however, gets a bit murkier on closer examination for free speech advocates.
Various groups and individuals have rallied to McDowell’s side, including the teacher’s union, to try to get the board to rescind the disciplinary action against McDowell. The discipline followed an angry exchange with two students about gay rights. However, it began with McDowell demanding that a student remove a belt buckle featuring the confederate flag — a buckle that the teacher found offensive.
The day of the encounter was part of a national Spirit Day held on Oct. 20 — a Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation event targeting anti-gay bullying after the recent suicides of six gay teens across the United States. Many students wore shirts supporting the cause.
In the class, junior Daniel Glowacki, 16, argued with McDowell over the fact that another student was wearing a belt buckle with the confederate flag. This was an economics class and led to both Glowacki and another students being ejected for anti-gay sentiments. McDowell was disciplined for deviating from curriculum and violating a student’s First Amendment rights. He was suspended for one day without pay.
The facts remain a bit unclear, but (as to the initial dispute) there is a legitimate free speech issue on which people may disagree. I tend to follow a robust view of free speech rights in schools, particularly with regard to older students like juniors. There are obviously some limits on what a student can wear — particularly with regard to threatening messages or hate speech. However, a confederate flag does not necessarily convey a threatening message. Some people have relatives who served in the Civil War or identify with the confederacy for various reasons. Should a teacher be able to force students to remove such a buckle? How about a Rainbow buckle signifying support for gays and lesbians?
As for the alleged anti-gay statements, few would argue that such comments are a legitimate basis for removal from the classroom. The only mitigating factor would be if the teacher asked for students to share their views of homosexuality.
The school specifically cited rules that told teachers not to pursue personal social issues and to avoid baiting students on controversial issues. This led to some teachers saying that such contemporary issues are appropriate in the classroom. I tend to give teachers a fair amount of leeway, even in an economics class, to discuss such issues but it comes with the risk that students will share contrary views. If a teacher wants to discuss such issues, he or she must also anticipate conflicting views being expressed. In this article, Glowacki said he asked the teacher why the student could not wear the buckle with students around him were wearing the rainbow symbol. He said that McDowell told him that the confederate flag stood for lynchings and asked if Glowacki was anti-gay. He said he was not but agreed to leave with the other student. He still maintains that he is not anti-gay — just pro-free speech.
Source: Livingston Daily