Friday, June 1, 2012

Dress Code Redress

Should public school children have free speech protections that include messages that combine sex and religion on their t-shirts?

Some kid in Ohio named Maverick Couch has won a court battle against his high school so that he can now wear his “Jesus Is Not a Homophobe” t-shirt to school.  Included in the favorable decision was a cool $20,000 for his troubles plus court costs.  That cash will buy quite a few screen print t-shirts.

While I am happy for Mr. Couch and his windfall, I am perhaps equally sad for the taxpayers in his school district who will not only share the expense of this losing lawsuit, but now must be legally subjected to all variety of political, religious and sexual messages on the shirts of their neighborhood youth during hours supposedly dedicated to learning facts and figures that will keep America competitive in the global economy.

First of all, the better court case would pit young Mr. Couch against his parents who chose to name him Maverick Couch.  He could comfortably sue for damages.  “Maverick” evokes images of aviator sunglasses and aerial dogfights against MIG fighters.  “Couch” evokes images of sitting, sleeping and vegetating in front of iCarly reruns.  I’m not seeing Maverick Couch as a good name for a high school kid.  I know that he isn’t asking to be bullied, but let’s face it – Maverick Couch isn’t helping, Mom, unless the kid looks like Tom Cruise and can get his couch airborne to some Kenny Loggins rock.

As to the actual case, I have no problem with his t-shirt, but I do have a problem with him wearing the t-shirt to school.  For full disclosure, as the parent of a 16 year old girl, I fully favor uniforms in the high schools for my own selfish reasons.  I understand that the creativity and self-expression of the little ones may be unnecessarily stifled by my attempt to reinstate the glory days of the Victorian Era.  I understand that their fragile self-esteem is at risk if they are not “free to be”.  Nevertheless, a uniform policy would save me money, my daughter time in front of the mirror, and some poor boy from getting hurt by me through an unfortunate “accident”, should his wandering eyes wander where they should not wander. 

I do not object because of the t-shirt’s religious message.  It is probably factually accurate.  Jesus chose 12 disciples, and His final hires do not reflect gender-diversity.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 

I do not object because of the political implications of the message.  The issue of discrimination based on sexual orientation will remain a hot political topic for the foreseeable future, and Lord knows it will be debated on TV. 

I object because his t-shirt is about sex.  I question the right of a student in a public school to express opinions or ideas about sex while inside the school.  I have an arbitrary caveat, which is that my rule only applies during class time.  If he shows up and wants to express his homo or heterosexual leanings on a t-shirt at a non-academic function, one at which attendance is not mandatory, enjoy.  While studying English and the uses of irony in Keats poetry, stick to solid colors and knee length skirts. 

There is a fine line between supporting a person’s choice of orientation and supporting their expression of that orientation, hetero or otherwise, in school.  Again, I admit to my bias here.  With teenaged kids, I have a vested interest in all matters of sexual expression remaining in the classroom as part of a clinical discussion that explains the risks of premature sexual experimentation, not the benefits.  I don’t need sex of any variety being normalized in the hallways of school.

I object because the t-shirt message is meant to shock, combining religion and sex into one lightweight cotton billboard.  Wait til college and wear it every day.  In high school, the last thing we need is more distraction.  Smartphones do a pretty good job of that already. 

Mr. Couch’s legal representation said after the decision that “First Amendment rights apply to all students on every day of the year.”  The First Amendment reads that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…”  Does that include school rules meant to shield minor children from sexual messages during the school day?  That seems to be an overly broad interpretation, but perhaps I am just an old fuddy duddy. 

The school district responded that “the message communicated by the student’s T-shirt is sexual in nature and therefore indecent and inappropriate in a school setting.”

Here is an excerpt from the school district’s response:

“Wayne Local School District Board of Education had the right to limit clothing with sexual slogans, especially in light what was then a highly charged atmosphere, in order to protect its students and enhance the educational environment. Consequently, the high school principal was well within the bounds of his authority to request that the student remove his T-shirt and refrain from wearing the T-shirt in the future.”

That is spot on, if you ask me.  These are children in a classroom, not adult civil protestors taking over a Starbucks on their own time.

Maverick Couch is correct that "We need to accept others how they come no matter their religion, sexual orientation, the color of their skin. Everyone is who they are. We all need to come together as a whole and accept everyone.”  He is wrong that he has a right to wear that t-shirt to high school.

Maybe Maverick needs a new wingman to explain it to him.

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