Up until the fall of 2009, I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought to breast cancer.
You could say that the death of my grandmother woke me up from my nonchalance. Sure, every October I’d been thrown statistics about how many women it affected, but nothing seems real until it’s at your front door.
Fast forward four years and I’m at my first Newton football game. For those of you who don’t know, I’ll be going back home soon and my friends have a “Bucket-List” they want me to finish before ending my short time in this town. While watching a sea of pink in the student section and smiling at the five students in the front row wearing shirts that, combined, spelled out “B-O-O-B-Z,” the fall air took me back to my first college football game four years ago, and my first high school game eight years before that. I don’t remember my high school ever having a pink-out game like Newton did Friday.
Then all the fun was ruined. Athletic Director Scott Garvis came up to the fence from the field and asked the students to turn their shirts inside out. Apparently, “BOOBZ” was too ofensive for the game, admittedly a family event. One of the letters, Z, quickly pointed out the ridiculousness of making them remove their signage. Later, one of the Bs told me the students were also forbidden from painting their bodies and going to a game shirtless. From what I understand, this was a tradition and a brave one at that considering the weather when you’re deep into football season.
After a small, yet unfruitful, fight to keep their shirts rightside-out, Garvis told the students that if they didn’t comply they would be forced to leave. The students complied, having been forced to choose between supporting breast cancer awareness or the Newton football team.
Sometime in the second quarter, O, O, and Z left the game. When they left, Garvis and two other unidentified staff followed them out of the stadium. During the entire halftime show, the three district officials scoured the neighborhood searching for the students. The cops were finally called. As many are aware, disciplinary actions, taken or merely pursued, are not a subject for inquiry. Principal Bill Peters said the two were unrelated.
The remaining letters, the Bs, and several other students assured me that O, O, and Z had done nothing wrong and they were shocked police had been called to search for the students. Moreover, they were frustrated that once again, their ability to cheer on Newton football and express themselves had been curbed.
After speaking to Garvis on Monday, his response to the incident was that the school, and property owned by the school, is a limited forum. Principal Bill Peters also echoed this idea.
“I had a complaint that it was offensive,” Peters said.
In 1965, the United States was in the thick of a military conflict that was tearing the country apart domestically. Support for the Vietnam War had fallen and it was most evident on college campuses. But, that year, in a Des Moines school, three students decided to wear black armbands in protest of the war. Prior to the school day, administrators quickly enacted new school policies which required the students to remove them.
The case was quickly picked up by the ACLU and went to U.S. Supreme Court. The high court ruled the school violated the student’s First Amendment rights when they forced the students to remove their armbands.
From that case, courts developed the “Tinker Test,” which was used for decades to determine whether a public school’s actions violated the rights of students. Essentially, schools could no longer limit speech merely because they want to avoid an incident revolving around an unpopular viewpoint.
I had no idea fighting breast cancer was unpopular.
Over the next several decades, the Tinker case would be whittled away by one court case after another.
In the 1988 case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the high court ruled the removal of two pages, which contained stories about teen pregnancy and students who had divorced parents, from the student publication was justified. Justice Byron White wrote the majority opinion stating, “A school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission, even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school.”
I had no idea fighting breast cancer was inconsistent with the educational mission of this school district.
In the 2007 case Morse v. Frederick, or more commonly known as “Bong hits for Jesus,” it was established that administrators could limit free speech that promoted illegal activity.
I had no idea fighting breast cancer was illegal.
As the administrators argued, “BOOBZ” is an obscene word and has no place in schools or at school events. In 1973, during Miller v. California, the courts established the “Miller Test,” which states three criteria must be met for speech to be considered obscene. One; Using community standards, does the speech have or encourage sexual conduct? Two, does the speech describe sexual or excretory functions? Three, does the work lack value in the political, scientific, artistic or literary realms.
I had no idea fighting breast cancer encouraged sexual conduct, described sexual functions and lacked value in our society.
Just this year, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that in 2010 the Easton Area School District in Pennsylvania had no right to suspend two students for wearing bracelets that said, “I Heart Boobies.” The court found the district had no right to limit their expression because the bracelets were not lewd and did comment on a social issue.
If Newton administrators honestly believe the word “BOOBZ” meets any or all three of these elements in the Miller Test, then perhaps we should just go ahead and devolve to Sharia Law and require female students to wear burkas. As one female student pointed out, “I actually have boobs. Are these offensive?”
A public forum is essential in free society. The first person whose expression of their thoughts is limited binds us all to the idea that certain thoughts and expressions are not tolerated. The censoring of certain ideas and ways of conveying those ideas is the first step backward, setting an example for the future and preventing such methods and ideas from being conveyed ever again. Even if you disagree or find offense, the censoring of anyone sets precedence.
Even in a limited forum, as administrators have argued, censoring the students simply based on another person being offended is not grounds to limit someone’s freedom of speech. Once administrators opened the limited forum up to the topic of breast cancer, they no longer have the authority to censor how that topic is discussed.
Those Newton administrators who censored students set the idea in the students’ minds their ideas are not worthy of the public forum, limited or otherwise.
When do they become worthy? When they aren’t at school events? When they reach the age of 18? When they graduate high school? An English professor once told me that such rights should only be granted at 25, which is when the brain is fully developed. I told her that such a law would equate to limiting driving to people who are under 70 years of age because that’s when the body begins to deteriorate.
I’ve been told that, in a lot of ways, the Newton Community School District is very advanced. I was surprised students are given iPads, for example. When it comes to treating its students like people, though, it has a long way to go.