Wilson peace message is lost in translation


Sometimes peace can cause a conflict.

Last month, members of Wilson High School's Students for Social Justice Club painted 'peace' in many languages on the windows of the school, facing the courtyard. With teacher permission, the students used water-soluble paint in bright colors to also paint peace symbols, doves and hands making a peace sign.

'The goal of the peace display was to promote the idea of peace in general, in the school and around the world,' said club member Camden Segal.

Yet the message was offensive to at least one person - a parent who called to complain - and the students were told to take the display down.

With the four-year anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq on March 18, some argue that the message could be interpreted as anti-war, anti-troops or anti-American.

Senior Maggie Zimmer, also of Students for Social Justice, argues that the message wasn't political.

'…We do not see why the most inoffensive word 'peace' has become a problem,' she said. 'There is no hidden agenda, no anti-war message.'

Portland Public School's spokesman Matt Shelby said that after the complaint the district sought legal counsel and was warned that leaving the peace signs up could make it harder to keep offensive or hateful messages off the windows later.

'It would open us up to a liability if we continued to offer that space as a venue for speech,' Shelby said. 'We don't have a problem at all with the peace message but if we allowed it to remain, it would open the windows up for public expression and severely limit our ability to limit what went up there.'

On the district's order, the students began removing the peace signs March 19.

'We have agreed to take down the paint on Wilson's windows, but only because if we don't the school janitors will have to and we do not believe that is right,' Zimmer said.

One symbol the students won't be forced to take down is the floor-to-ceiling peace sign that has adorned a wall in the school's cafeteria since 9/11.

But while they can't paint on the windows anymore, the students have found other ways to get their message across. They have scrawled peace on the sidewalks in chalk, taped signs to their lockers and painted the windows of their cars.

The owners of Paloma Clothing in the Hillsdale Town Center have offered their window as a canvas for the peace message as well.

'We felt it was a good role for a locally owned business to step up and let the students keep their message in front of the public,' said co-owner Mike Roach.

Yet at Wilson, this isn't the first time a student's message has been too political for school.

On Jan. 2 senior Daniel Ronan hung a poster in the hallway without approval and it was subsequently taken down the same day. With 3,000 tiny tombstones, the poster read: 'U.S. Deaths in Iraq: 3,000; Iraqis: Unknown. Why?'

In order to get the poster put back up, Ronan agreed to change the wording to say: 'U.S. Deaths in Iraq: 3,000; Iraqis: 600,000. Think about it.'

'I was really frustrated at the fact that 'Why?' was considered political in that it did not directly say anything,' Ronan said later of the incident. 'A person could have any answer to the question.'

As for the district, Shelby said the removal of Wilson's peace displays could set a precedent for other schools. If 'why?' is a political statement and peace is anti-war, what could be the next idea that is no longer welcome on school property?

'This one incident will spark a broader look at public venues for expression in schools,' he said.