A Canadian high school student, Josh Alexander, 16, is at the center of a free speech fight in Ontario after he was arrested and criminally charged for attempting to attend class in violation of an exclusion order. Alexander was suspended from St. Joseph’s Catholic High School in Renfrew, Ontario after expressing his religious views on transgender status and rights.
Alexander is a born-again Christian who has been active in politics, including supporting last year’s trucker protests. He was suspended in November after organizing protests at his school against biological males in girls’ bathrooms and arguing in class that God created only two unchangeable genders. He insists that his “offense is obviously defined by the offended.”
He is quoted as further saying that “I expressed my religious beliefs in class and it spiraled out of control…That doesn’t make me a bully. It doesn’t mean I’m harassing anybody. They express their beliefs and I express mine. Mine obviously don’t fit the narrative.”
Alexander was reportedly told by his principal that he could return to school only if he stopped using the “dead name,” or given name, of transgender students and agreed to drop classes with two transgender students who objected to his religious views about gender.
I disagree with people who refuse to use the chosen name of transgender people. However, if transgender issues are discussed in class (particularly at a religious school), the school should expect a diversity of opinions. There is also a right to protest so long as it is not disruptive of classes or school functions.
Alexander is suspended or “excluded” for the rest of the school year and is challenging the action in court. At issue will likely be what constitutes “bullying” in such contexts. My concern is that the school may have included his statements outside of school on social media and in class as part of relevant discussions.
I agree with the school that the transgender students face great prejudice and hatred. Suicide rates and suicidal ideation are much higher for such students. It is important to monitor and maintain a supportive environment for these students.
However, it is also important to maintain the free speech rights of the student body as a whole. This should be possible by employing rules of decorum and decency in how students treat one another without preventing discussion of these underlying political, legal, and social issues.
High school students are close to emerging into society as adults where this debate is raging. They should be prepared to voice their views on both sides. Conversely, we should not be raising a generation of young censors who believe that free speech is inherently harmful or must be sharply controlled for the safety of others.
These are difficult cases for educators, but free speech rights are often jettisoned as a first response to such conflicts. Anderson and his classmates should be able to protest and speak freely. Transgender students and their classmates should have the same rights. Neither side has a right to bully or badger those with opposing views. There are legitimate questions about whether the school swept too broadly in curtailing the expression of opposing views and values, particularly in speech made outside of school.