The Daily Caller is reporting 14-year-old West Virginian Jared Marcum is facing a year in jail and a $500 fine for events surrounding a shirt he wore to school:
The West Virginia eighth-grader who was suspended and arrested in late April after he refused to remove a t-shirt supporting the National Rifle Association appeared in court this week and was formally charged with obstructing an officer.
Notwithstanding the facts of this case (and the assumption I have that this kid will eventually have his charges dropped), it brings up a big discussion of what role the schoolhouse has and should have in the protection of our constitutional rights under the First Amendment. To put it plainly, students like Jared must have greater protection of their rights in order to build a population that respects the rights of others and knows how to properly exercise their own.
There is an entire library of case law and scholarly work on how the First Amendment applies in an education setting. Important cases include Bethel Sch. Dist. v. Fraser - 478 U.S. 675 (1986), Tinker v. Des Moines Sch. Dist. - 393 U.S. 503 (1969), and a host of others. It is arguable in the context of these cases that Marcum had a "right" to wear the shirt that he did.
Regardless if students do have their rights protected to a large degree, they should receive greater protection in line with the population at large. The first reason is simple: students are compelled to attend an educational institution. In other words, the state requires that students attend an institution that is given greater flexibility in skirting First Amendment protections. While there is a reasonable understanding that schools must maintain discipline in a different fashion from society at large, the assumption should always be that restricting First Amendment rights must have a serious and very compelling state interest.
That is an argument that's been argued in front of the court many times, though, and in many cases they've decided that interest exist. There is a functional reason that schools can and should embrace more speech protections. As institutions that educate Americans on how to live in society, schools should be teaching students the functional responsibilities of the rights we have in society. That is truly the problem with Marcum's story.
A shirt saying "Protect Your Rights" with a gun on it is far, far different from a call to violence. It's no different than a shirt that says "Legalize and Normalize" with a hemp plant on it does not encourage illicit drug use. Students need to understand why that's the case, and educators should feel compelled to teach them why. Suspending students because they wear an unpopular and uncomfortable message in the classroom is cowardice on the part of school officials.
Rights come with responsibility, but responsibility is a learned characteristic. Students especially need the opportunity to learn how our rights work in the context of a pluralistic society. The partisan tomfoolery of today is nothing more than the product of losing that two-sided understanding of our constitutional rights, and nowhere is that more evident than in the school house where students have very limited rights.
Again, there is an understandable and necessary balance to be drawn here. Prepubescent citizens are going to understand and use their rights different than older citizens. However, that argument is a slippery slope for restricting rights, as any bright line of when someone is "ready" is wholly arbitrary. Schools must respect rights to a larger degree than they do know, and use the opportunity to do what they should do best: teach.