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Professor Jeff McCall '76 Examines Extreme Messages vs. Free Speech in Newspaper Op-Ed  

December 24, 2011

"A federal judge in California ruled last month that high school students could be sent home for wearing T-shirts that school officials feared could prompt violence," begins an Indianapolis Star column by Jeff McCall, professor of communication at DePauw University. "One might think that such inflammatory shirts would have to display extreme messages, such as gang identifications, implications about illegal drugs or perhaps racist messages. Instead, the T-shirts that prompted school administrators to sanction the students depicted images of the U.S. flag. Old Glory was deemed by school officials to be such a volatile symbol that students could be dismissed for displaying it on clothing."

Dr. McCall elaborates, "The case emerged from Live Oak High School in California. The students were wearing the shirts on Cinco de Mayo, an important day for the many Mexican-American students at that school. School administrators feared the flag-wearing students' safety could be in jeopardy at the school, which had some history of ethnic tension."

He notes, "Decisions interpreting First Amendment free expression protections are quite difficult for judges to make. Add in the need to protect public school students and the context of patriotic symbols, and the decision is more complicated."

The new ruling, McCall observes, is "consistent with the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines free speech case in 1969 that allows school officials to restrict student expression if they believe it would cause 'substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities.' The Tinker decision also declares, however, that students do not 'shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.' That was the basis for a federal court decision in Michigan in 2003, when a student wore a T-shirt with a photo of George W. Bush and the words "international terrorist" on it. That shirt, too, could well have sparked a disturbance."

Professor McCall, the author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences declares, "Nobody can dispute the need to protect students in a public school setting, but the California ruling seems to turn the First Amendment on its head. It allows those students who might engage in violence to suppress other students who want to express themselves through messages on their clothing. Rhetorically, this decision says the way to stifle expression you don't like is to create a threatening atmosphere. Such a standard, if allowed to continue, empowers those who would suppress expression at the expense of the speaker. It is difficult to imagine this is what the Founders had in mind when the First Amendment was crafted. Perhaps Live Oak High School could have found a way to protect the flag wearers without banning their expression."

McCall believes the case "needs to ultimately reach the Supreme Court ... School administrators and students across the nation need more Supreme Court guidance on student free expression. The Tinker ruling needs an update so the Supreme Court can address the inconsistency that allows one student to label a sitting president a terrorist while sanctioning another student who displays our nation's flag."

Access the complete essay at College News.org.

A 1976 graduate of DePauw, Jeffrey M. McCall is frequently called upon by major news outlets to discuss media matters and has been quoted in more than 100 newspapers. Read his recent comments in the UK's Guardian.

Source: Indianapolis Star

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