October 26, 2012

Cheering out of bounds

First Amendment invoked, misused in suit involving Texas cheerleaders’ Bible verse banner.

You don’t have the right not to be offended.

That was the upshot of the “Innocence of Muslims” controversy: Though there are many things that should not be said, the price to silence them is far too high. Doing so would take away the protection of minority opinions that are so important for a functioning democracy. We must defend the freedom of speech because we never know when our voices might be the ones that others want to silence.

In public schools, however, the rules change. Complete freedom of speech is among the many rights that students check at the door. Because they are both run by the government and charged with an educational mission, there are limits upon what both the students and the school itself are allowed to say. Schools must allow students to speak within reason and make sure that their speech does not threaten the educational aims of the school.

The recent First Amendment dispute involving Texas cheerleaders challenges where the line should be drawn between these two goals. If you haven’t heard about the case, here’s a brief synopsis: Cheerleaders in a small Texas town called Kountze were ordered by their superintendent to stop using banners with Bible quotes at football games. They subsequently sued the school board for infringing their right to free speech. The controversy hinges upon whether the cheerleaders were acting as individuals, or as representatives of the school. If they are individuals, then their speech is protected. If they are representatives of the school—if their speech is deemed “public”—then it cannot have a religious message.

To me, the verdict is clear: As symbols who are supposed to represent the school at games, the cheerleaders’ use of Bible quotes is inappropriate. Though this example is on the border of what should be prohibited (if students held the same banners in the stands, they would be perfectly within their rights), they are participating in school-sponsored speech.

The precedent upon which the school board based its decision, Santa Fe Independent School v. Doe, established that student-led prayers before football games violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” In that case, school-run elections determined who would give the prayer and, after complaints were filed, whether a prayer would be held. The school played an active role in setting up the prayer. As a litmus test for whether the speech was public or private, the court asks “whether an objective observer, acquainted with the text, legislative history, and implementation of the statute, would perceive it as a state endorsement of prayer in public schools.” Applying the same logic to this case, an outside observer seeing the cheerleaders on the field bedecked in school colors would surely come to the conclusion that their actions had the approval of the school.

But what I find to be most problematic about this debate is neither the desire for free speech nor the desire to maintain a welcoming school environment, but that both sides, under the guise of freedom of speech or separation of church and state, want to force others to stand in line with their opinions.

Governor Rick Perry of Texas (well-known as a flavor of the month during the Republican primaries) came out in support of the cheerleaders, saying, “We’re a nation that’s built on the concept of free expression of ideas. We’re also a culture built upon the concept that the original law is God’s law, outlined in the Ten Commandments.” To pretend that Perry only wants to protect students’ freedom of speech is laughable. His rhetoric clearly implies that American culture is synonymous with a culture based upon the Bible, and so to believe in anything else is to not take part in that culture—to not be American. The Establishment Clause exists to protect us from the Rick Perrys of the nation, people who think that the state is an appropriate venue through which to show people the error of their religious ways.

At the same time, opponents of the cheerleaders should stop to figure out exactly where the line should be. Feeling uncomfortable or not wanting to hear something are not reasons to try to abolish it. After all, for those of minority religions or those without religious affiliation, it is impossible to live in a predominantly Christian nation and avoid ever feeling alienated. Religious minorities—here I include myself as an atheist—must tread carefully to make sure that our reasons are the right ones; that they spring from the desire to create a country where no religions are favored over others, not from the desire to forget that we are in the minority.

Maya Fraser is a third-year in the College majoring in sociology.