Live Oak High School’s Teachable Moment

When four students showed up at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, California, last week wearing American flag T-shirts on Cinco de Mayo, their assistant principal thought the shirts were inflammatory. He told the boys to turn them inside out or go home.

Conventional wisdom—at least the wisdom that comes from columnists—seems to agree that the assistant principal overreacted and missed a teachable moment.

We agree. But the question is, what lesson should have been taught?

Option A: It’s an opportunity to teach about free speech.

According to one local columnist, it’s all about free speech and defending even the speech you find distasteful. He applies the rule made famous by the Schenck v. United States case, that the flag T-shirts were not the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater. Oh, and he worries that the incident just added fuel to the anti-immigrant conflagration stoked by many on the right.

I would not want kids wearing anti-racism or anti-war T-shirts to be sent home, so the First Amendment argument gets my sympathetic attention.

Option B: It’s an opportunity to teach about wisdom and respect.

Film critic Roger Ebert, who doesn’t usually weigh in on educational matters, agrees that the kids had a right to wear the T-shirts. But he argues that the school’s leaders should have chosen to focus on how to exercise free speech responsibly:

“I can think of another lost teaching opportunity: One to illustrate the practice of tolerance and empathy. It is not kind or good to deliberately make a point of offending another group. This has nothing to with the American flag itself, which I'm sure those Mexican-Americans consider their own. Many of their older brothers and relatives may now be serving in American uniforms.”

The authorities at Live Oak High School faced the kind of decision people living in a democracy face daily: where to stand when two values we hold dear conflict? The tough choices in life seldom come up when our options are "good" on one hand and "evil" on the other. They usually occur when we must pick between two things are both good. In one corner, free speech; in the other, respect and consideration for others.

Public school students have rights, and at a minimum their administrators need to ensure that those rights are protected. But the primary mission of educators in public schools is to teach children how to use those rights, and how to be a member of a diverse society. Students need to learn that rights come with responsibilities. And in a pluralistic society, we need to understand and respect the people who live alongside us.


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