TERRORISM, VIETNAM, AND FREE SPEECH
On September 14, 2001, America’s National Day of Remembrance, some middle school students in Portland, Oregon, showed up wearing patriotic items of clothing. Citing the school’s dress code, the principal — a public employee, paid with taxpayer dollars — ordered the items removed. At about the same time, the head librarian at a Florida college — another public employee, also paid with taxpayer dollars — ordered employees to remove red, white, and blue "Proud to be an American" stickers from their clothing. "My concern," the librarian said, "was that if a student comes to the desk and sees the slogan, it might make it [sic] uncomfortable. I think we have an obligation to think about how we present ourselves. We want to ensure civility and tolerance." Another college functionary opined that: "We’re not here to express our personal opinions. We should be neutral."
These are but two examples of many that have already occurred since September 11th. We can expect many more, as morally bankrupt individuals attempt to stifle displays of patriotism by those who wish to express their support for their country.
If we are vigilant, those who would attempt to censor patriotism will not get away with it. Ironically, we can thank a 1969 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.
In late 1965, a group of adults and students in Des Moines decided to manifest their objection to the Viet Nam war by wearing black armbands during the holiday season. The local school principals — again, public employees, paid with taxpayer dollars — got wind of the idea and quickly adopted a policy that if a student wore a black armband to school and refused to remove it upon request, the student would be suspended until he or she returned without it. Three students wore the armbands, and were duly suspended.
When the case reached the Supreme Court — the so-called Warren Court, consisting of the Chief Justice and Justices Black, Douglas, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, Fortas and Marshall — two lower federal courts already had held the school’s policy constitutional, and the students’ First Amendment rights not violated.
Justice Fortas wrote the Supreme Court’s opinion (with only Black and Harlan in dissent). His words bear repeating.
First, said Fortas, wearing the black armbands "was closely akin to ‘pure speech’ which [the Court has] repeatedly held is entitled to comprehensive protection under the First Amendment." [So, too, was the patriotic clothing in Oregon and the patriotic stickers in Florida.]
Second, "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." [Nor at the college door.]
Third, "In order for the . . . school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, [they] 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." [There was no such showing in either Oregon or Florida.]
Fourth, "On the contrary, the action of the school authorities appears to have been based upon an urgent wish to avoid the controversy which might result from the expression, even by the silent symbol of armbands, of opposition to this Nation’s part in the conflagration in Vietnam." [Clearly, that was the motive of the authorities in both Oregon and Florida.]
Finally, "The prohibition of expression of . . . opinion, at least without evidence that it is necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline, is not constitutionally permissible."
What was true for Viet Nam war protest must certainly be true for America’s young patriots. It is often said that the United States Constitution is "color blind." Indeed, it is, and should be. And it is, and should be, "ideology blind." Those who patriotically support America in this time of crisis are entitled to the same free speech protections that, three decades ago, the Warren Court was so quick to uphold on behalf of the Left anti-war protesters of the Viet Nam era.
Free speech is more than a noble sentiment. It is the law of our land, and it applies to both anti-Americanism and patriotism.