This past week had a day that celebrates the Bill of Rights. The original first 10 amendments to the Constitution that limits the role of government to control our lives. Also during this week the 1st of those amendments took a beating in the Indianapolis area. I wrote about Knightstown, the ACLU was approached by a resident who felt that a cross on the tree in the town square was a violation of the prohibition of government from picking one religion over another. The town took the flag down to avoid a lawsuit that they would certainly lose. The reaction was swift and in many cases epic in its ignorance. One comment I heard was that the majority of people wanted the government to promote Christianity so the minority should be quiet. The point of the Bill of Rights is that we don’t vote on them. The rights are there to protect us all. In this case, the town has trouble seeing the danger of allowing governments to promote a faith tradition. But what is worse is the concept of our rights can be at the whim of the majority. When the founders decided what kind of government they wanted they made a point of leaving God out of it. At a time when the very language of daily discourse included references to God the Constitution is devoid of religious references. Their brilliance has kept us from falling into problems that we have seen in many other countries that try to balance religion and civic culture. When any sin is also a crime against the state and any crime is an affront to God we lose a great deal of freedom. Knightstown is a place where many see the cross as a symbol of hope, but that is not enough. Government should not be in the business of religion. So while the Knightstown decision was a victory of the 1st amendment, I fear many people, including a local editorial cartoonist, doesn’t understand and that is sad and scary.
But the 1st also seemed to lose a battle this week. In Carmel High School an Anti-Abortion poster was put up by a student group. The poster, seen below, was simple to understand and the poster fairly unobtrusive as far as anti-abortion posters can go. The school took the poster down, for no reason other than it offended someone. Now schools have some ability to limit what can be on the walls, this is not at issue. If a student group follows the rules and gets the right permission then the message itself should not be disqualifying because some people don’t like the message itself. In fact the 1st amendment MUST be defended for those whom we disagree with. I am pro-choice and have harsh criticism for many in the so-called pro-life movement. However it troubles me greatly that a school would suppress an opinion because some people don’t like it. There is case law on this. Students can have opinions and student groups can promote those opinions within the structure of acceptable behavior but the school cannot squash ideas because they don’t like them. Carmel High School is attacking these students’ rights. Schools should be a market place of ideas and this should be a teachable moment. I think the students were making a strong statement in a forum that other groups have done the same thing. They weren’t being offensive, even if they were slightly provocative. But I can’t see how this poster rose to the level that it was disruptive to the education process nor was it in any way that I can see offensive.
It is clear to me that the 1st amendment was never meant to protect only what we believe or are comfortable with but exactly those things we don’t agree with nor are happy about. I find the message of the poster simplistic, I am staunchly pro-choice, but I think the school needs to allow these kinds of messages to be part of the tapestry of opinions that are allowed to grace the same walls. The school, as an agent of the government, must have a compelling reason to stop a student’s voice. This poster doesn’t seem to have a reason I can find. I hope we can all see that these students should be allowed to voice their opinion and that if we want to challenge it the school should be a place they can do so in a safe and fair environment.
The 1st amendment is a treasure in many ways, we can’t let it be chipped away. Not for the sake of the majority nor that we don’t like the message being expressed. When the Nazis marched in Skokie is was not a victory for them, it was a victory for all of us. To have stopped them would have given value to their ideology. Freedom is hard. It means we have a diversity of culture and thought. That is what makes our country strong. Let’s remember what the founder’s dreams were and stand with me to defend the Constitution and acknowledge that we will encounter ideas, thoughts, phrases that make us uncomfortable. Here is the secret, my voice and your voice make someone uncomfortable too. I would rather be uncomfortable at times then to be silenced. I think you do too.
This is the poster in question from Carmel High School. What do you think?