Georgia teacher takes heat for trying to ban MAGA attire in the classroom

FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2015, file photo, Donald Trump supporter John Wang wears a shirt autographed by the Republican presidential candidate outside the National Federation of Republican Assemblies in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

A high school math teacher in Cherokee County Georgia has reopened the debate over censorship in schools after telling students they could not wear t-shirts with Donald Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again."

"Just like you cannot wear a swastika to school you cannot [wear that shirt]," the River Ridge High School teacher told two students last Thursday. The students were told to leave the classroom and flip the shirt inside-out "because it says MAGA."

As the story made the rounds on social media and the news, the district superintendent's office sent a letter to parents condemning the actions of the teacher and apologizing to the students.

"Her actions were wrong," said Barbara Jacoby, the superintendent's communications director, adding the "Make America Great Again" shirts are not a violation of the dress code.

The school is not currently discussing disciplinary action against the teacher, but Jacoby stated that the teacher acted "inappropriately" by sharing "her personal opinion about the campaign slogan during class."

The incident at River Ridge High School follows a summer of heated debate and violent clashes over political symbols, most notably centered on the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia last month over the removal of a Confederate statue.

The president's response to the violence in Charlottesville fueled claims by some of Trump's critics that he was providing cover for far-right and led others to broadly paint Trump supporters as neo-Nazis and racists.

The incident in Georgia also intersects a broader trend in high school and college classrooms to attempt to silent particular kinds of political speech.

Before the school year ended in June, a number of students in New Jersey had their yearbook entries changed by administrators because they contained references to Donald Trump. One student had a Trump logo edited out of his class photo. Another student noticed the Trump logo on his sweater vest was gone and his sister's quote attributed to Trump, wasn't printed.

On college campuses, the efforts to limit controversial speech have been more dramatic.

At Berkeley College, the birthplace of the 1960s free speech movement, a February protest against alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos turned violent and resulted in $100,000 in property damage. Last month at least six people were injured at the college when protesters, counter-protesters and police clashed during a "No to Marxism in America" rally.

Similar outbursts have taken place at Evergreen College in Washington State, the University of Chicago, UC Davis, and other schools. At Middlebury College, one professor was physically assaulted after a protest broke out opposing a speech given by conservative libertarian Charles Murray.

The series of incidents involving the silencing of certain controversial voices on campus led both the House and Senate to hold hearings focused on threats to free speech in educational institutions.

Nadine Strossen, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union and currently a professor at New York Law School, testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in July raising concerns that campus censorship will do more harm than good in the long-term.

On Tuesday, she reaffirmed her view, explaining that "the mere fact that you're upsetting somebody is not a justification for suppressing speech, even in a school situation which admittedly is different from the public sphere generally."

In Georgia, she said the administrators acted appropriately in defending the students' right to express a political viewpoint, contrary to other incidents at the university level where administrators defended restrictions on free speech, the Georgia high school defended the students' right to wear a Trump t-shirt and express a political viewpoint.

"I'm happy the school district got it right," Strossen said. "They were correct to recognize this was an inappropriate action." The action would have been even more of a "teachable moment" if the school invoked the students' first amendment right, rather than simply saying the shirt did not violate the dress code.

Trevor Burrus, a senior research fellow at the Cato Institute's Center for Constitutional Studies stressed that the high school teacher equating a standard political slogan to hate speech is "emblematic" of a broader breakdown in Americans' ability to engage in productive political dialogue.

"The biggest threat to free speech is the fact that Americans increasingly have no concept why other people disagree with them," Burrus explained. "When you think other people disagree with you because of purely nefarious motives, it becomes much more likely that you're willing to shut those voices down in the name of the 'public interest.'"

"And it's coming from both sides."

Last year in Arizona, a 10th-grade student was prohibited from wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt on school picture day. The administrators claimed the shirt was disruptive to the school’s educational environment.

Some have equated the Black Lives Matter apparel to Confederate flag shirts. Free speech experts affirm that under most circumstances, wearing either garment is protected.

Like the Georgia teacher who expressed her political viewpoint in class, educators in California and Minnesota have been disciplined for wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts or pins to school.

According to Strossen, educators have a special responsibility when it comes to expressing their own political views, particularly in secondary or primary schools.

"Teachers have so much influence ... over our students," she said. "For a teacher to express his or her political views may chill a student from expressing different views or criticizing them."

While most people would support students in high school getting involved and paying attention to politics, that also means allowing students to engage in free political expression, Burres emphasized.

"Generally speaking, a lot of places where kids first learn how to respect other people's viewpoints and how to deal with dissent in a liberal society should be in high school," Burress stressed. "And they shouldn't have teachers coming in and calling mainstream political thought akin to a swastika."

Recent studies suggest that unlike older generations, younger Americans are more prone to want to censor certain views or limit potentially offensive speech.

UCLA conducted a study involving 141,000 first-year students at colleges around the country and found that 71 percent agreed that colleges should prohibit racist or sexist speech on campus. About 43 percent said that colleges have the right to ban "extreme speakers" from campus.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of millennials support government censorship of offensive statements about minorities.

Despite the differing viewpoints on the subject, the Supreme Court has clearly ruled in favor of protecting the right of the minority to freely express their views, regardless of whether or not it is offensive.

"The Supreme Court took a very hard-line," Strossen said of the landmark 1969 case, Tinker vs. Des Moines, where the court upheld students' right to protest the Vietnam War.

The court determined that the simple desire from administrators to avoid the controversy of students wearing black armbands in opposition to the war was not sufficient cause to stifle free expression.

"The Supreme Court very strongly said that the mere fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough," she continued. In order to suppress speech, including through symbolic expression, like a hashtag on a t-shirt, there must be evidence of substantial disruption of the educational process or a clear violation of the rights of others.

The Supreme Court has not revisited its 1969 ruling, and despite the recent surge in controversy over free speech on campus, Burrus doesn't believe the court will take it up again.

"All of these are fairly easy cases, essentially," he noted. "In terms of whether or not the speech is protected, that's been decided for decades. There is no justice on the Supreme Court who is going to look at it again and say, Nazi speech is not protected."

It has often been said that America is unique, an outlier among other countries in its vigorous protection of free speech. However, no one suggested that preserving that right would be simple, especially in the face of ideas that are abhorrent or upsetting or disgusting.

During a Senate hearing on campus suppression of free speech, Floyd Abrams, renowned legal scholar, explained that the First Amendment response "cannot be to limit expression but to discuss it, not to bar offensive speech but to answer it."

"I know that’s easy to say but it’s got to be the way we respond to speech which we abhor," he concluded. "What is unacceptable is to suppress the speech."

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