Author: ADF Litigation Staff Counsel David J. Hacker
In the May 7th edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the ProfHacker section (no relation) asks for input on how to handle students "who display offensive/insensitive slogans on their clothes." I thought I would offer my two cents. Here's the scenario from ProfHacker:
Scenario #1:You are teaching a general education class at your institution, a mid-sized public institution that is (almost) open access. The student body is diverse in both age, race, gender, and socio-economic status. The class is fairly large (50+ students) and you are in a tiered classroom. The content of that day's lecture is not controversial or politically charged. Students are alternately dozing off or taking notes as you work through that day's lesson. A student comes into the classroom late, and as the door is at the front of the room, you and all the students turn to look as she noisily walks in the door. You notice her t-shirt. As she walks up the steps to the top of the tiered classroom, other students notice her t-shirt, too. You hear gasps erupting from many students. What's she wearing? A t-shirt with images of aborted fetuses on it. On the back? "I'm pro-life!"
The premise of this article is disturbing (what to do with "students who display offensive/insensitive slogans on their clothes"). The answer should be simple: nothing. Yet, the article typifies current thinking on today's public university campus-"we must create a utopia where no one gets their feelings hurt." This thinking led to the creation of speech codes in the 1980s and has resulted in the censorship of countless students since.
University administrators ask questions like these because they have a distorted view of student First Amendment rights. They view students as minors who must be protected from controversial ideas. But the Supreme Court differs, calling the university the "marketplace of ideas."
Often college administrators try to apply primary and secondary schools standards on campus. But even high schools know that they cannot prohibit students from wearing a t-shirt with "offensive" language on it, even one that says "Abortion is not Healthcare."
The mere fact that ProfHacker asks how faculty should handle a student with a pro-life t-shirt demonstrates the distorted view of student speech on campus today (just look at the comments to the article). While pro-life t-shirts create "offense" and "disruption," Che Guevara t-shirtsare considered edgy and thought-provoking (even though he brutally murdered countless Cubans). So to answer ProfHacker's question: Faculty should let the student wear the t-shirt and instead focus on teaching the curriculum.
This post originally appeared here.