A weekend interview with ...
... Tom Gonzalez, the Hillsborough School Board attorney. He talks to reporter Letitia Stein about this week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling on free speech in schools. The court limited speech promoting drug use in a decision that supported a high school principal who punished a student for unfurling a banner that read "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS."
LS: What is your take on the significance of the Supreme Court ruling?
TG: It basically confirmed what I think has always been the law. While students certainly have rights of free speech, there is always the ability, or the right, of administrators to control disruption and to control speech on topics that aren't appropriate to the educational context.
LS: What do students need to know? What do teachers need to know?
TG: Students shouldn't be afraid to speak, so long as they don't do things that I think anybody would find disruptive ... I don't think any kid really thinks that you have a right to promote drug usage in a school system.
Teachers retain the right to control the school environment, so long as they don't keep people from exercising their right to speak on things that are appropriate in the educational context.
LS: At what point would you draw the line between a conversation about about race and racist speech?
TG: You can certainly have a discussion about the history of race relations in the U.S. To the extent that you want to espouse theories about the inferiority or superiority of one race or another, I think that would be out of bounds in a secondary school system. It might not be in a post-secondary.
LS: What are some of the controversial issues that have grown out of free speech debates?
TG: Abortion has always been one of the huge things. War protests are another. Ethnicity or pride has been another, with people wanting to wear t-shirts or national flags. There's also the Confederate flag thing.
LS: If you can control the Confederate flag, what about ethnic t-shirts or national flags?
TG: If you want to wear a small cross or flag necklace, I think that's appropriate. If you want to wear a two-foot high cross on your neck, then I think the school administration has an opportunity or right at that point to say that's inappropriate, whether it's a cross, crescent, Star of David.
LS: In the Supreme Court ruling, two justices noted that their decision would not prevent an academic discussion on legalizing marijuana. Can you explain how that would work in the school context?
TG: I think that discussion could be had in a political science class, maybe a science class, maybe a history class.
If you have a teacher having that discussion in a math class then you run into not so much a free speech issue, but a right to control curriculum issue.
If you're talking about me walking up the hall during class break saying, "Drugs are good, I think they have to be legalized," then I think I could be stopped.
LS: Are there any other common misconceptions about free speech in schools?
TG: It's hard to have a discussion about chastity as a means of birth control and not open that up to a discussion about other alternative means of birth control.
I think a lot of people don't get that still. It's not about the subject, it's about whether or not you have the right to utter that speech, and then if it's disruptive and can be controlled.