Right to free speech is inviolable, even when it offends
In January, administrators at Hillsboro's Liberty High School kicked a student out of class after he wore a pro-Donald Trump shirt to a political science class. The shirt advocated for the president's proposed border wall between the United States and Mexico — probably one of the most volatile topics you could bring up at Liberty, where more than one-third of the student body is Latino.
But while the shirt was provocative, we believe it was wise for the district to settle this case and move on.
Last week, the district settled the student's federal lawsuit for $25,000, and agreed to apologize to the teen after he was suspended from school when administrators told him he could either cover the shirt, or go home.
Read our story about the settlement between Hillsboro School District and former student Addison Barnes from July 25, 2018.
The shirt — which included the logo of a fictitious "Donald J. Trump Construction Co." and boasted a quote from Trump about the wall — was, to put it mildly, in poor taste. Particularly in a community that has embraced diversity as fully as Hillsboro and Washington County. The proposed wall it espouses divides not just America from Mexico, but drives a wedge between people in Oregon's most diverse county.
We are, as has been said so many times before, a melting pot. What makes this such a great place to live is the inclusion of people from every faith, race and background. That's on full display all across Washington County, such as Hillsboro's Latino Cultural Festival, or at the various mosques and Hindu temples scattered across Hillsboro, Beaverton and Tigard. You can see it in the faces of Cornelius residents, who make up one of the few "majority-minority" cities in the state.
But while we may find it troublesome that a student would wear such a shirt to school, we can't say they should be suspended for wearing it.
The shirt didn't incite violence. It didn't make racial slurs. It did, however, side with the president on immigration, akin to a scarlet "A" in many parts of the Portland area.
Plenty of online criticism has been levied against the school district in the past week for giving in and allowing "hate speech" on its campuses, but the Supreme Court weighed in on this issue decades ago, famously ruling during the Vietnam War that students "don't shed their constitutional rights at the school house gates."
After the lawsuit was filed, the American Civil Liberties Union came to the boy's defense, as did the conservative blogosphere. Stories about the lawsuit appeared on Fox News, Breitbart and Info Wars, as well as the "fake news" Washington Post.
This is the second time in two years that the Hillsboro School District has found itself in the crosshairs of conservative media. In 2016, the district dared ask administrators to rein in their office Christmas decorations, which exploded among conservative media into a national "War on Christmas" narrative.
That "controversy" was taken completely out of context, but it did serve as a reminder that school administrators should make sure to err on the side of tolerance. That lesson is again at the heart of the district's latest brush with national attention.
The First Amendment is something we must protect, even when we disagree with the message. Was the shirt offensive to many in the class? Undoubtedly. Did the student have every right to wear it? Absolutely.
The district does have the right to step in when issues of free speech are disruptive, or interfere with a school's activities, and while the district contends it had a case to make in this instance, the uncomfortable truth we must accept is that the same laws that brought a crowd to the Hillsboro Civic Center for a rally last month against the president's immigration policies — the same laws that allow late-night TV hosts to bash on the president every night, and the same law that allowed Liberty High School students to march out of class at least twice in the last two years in protest of Trump — are the same laws that protect a 17-year-old boy with a T-shirt that promotes beliefs we don't support.
Love or hate the message, his right to say it can't be denied.
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