May 11, 2010
The two students were minding their own business—just sitting at a table on a school break, chatting with their friends. And then the vice principal of the school walked up to the boys—and ordered them to remove their American flag bandanas. Their T-shirts also featured the Stars and Stripes. The boys were told to turn them inside out, so the flags wouldn't show.
The boys—who often wore these kind of clothes—refused, and were sent to the principal's office. There, they were told their T-shirts were "incendiary," and would provoke fights.
Why? Because it was Cinco de Mayo. Mexican-American students at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, California might be offended. Take the shirts off, the boys were told—or face suspension.
Instead, the boys went home. But they, and their parents, are furious. As one of the students—Daniel Galli—put it, "I did nothing wrong...I'm an American and I'm proud to be an American."
As for the school's Mexican-American students—they think their flag-wearing classmates ought to apologize. One of them, Annicia Nunez, told a reporter why: "It is a Mexican Heritage Day. We don't deserve to get disrespected like that."
Disrespected? By students wearing the flag of their country? It's hard to know where to start.
First of all, if Ms. Nunez is an American citizen, the American flag is her flag, too. Why would she be offended by the sight of it?
Second, where did Ms. Nunez get the idea that she had a right not to be offended by someone else's exercise of free speech—speech that is protected by the Constitution? America was built on the belief that everyone has the right to freedom of speech.
Given that, it's understandable that what we say, write, or have emblazoned on our clothing may sometimes offend our neighbors. But we accept that bargain because we believe in tolerance—that is, putting up with people whose opinions we don't like, and treating them with respect.
Sadly, this view of tolerance has been turned on its head in recent years. So-called cultural arbiters—the media, academics, political leaders—now prescribe which ideas and opinions are in bounds and which things are out of bounds. And then, they enforce their decisions. This is akin to the soft despotism Toqueville warned about—the tyranny of tolerance where the cultural elites seek to eliminate free expression.
I'm happy to report that outraged citizens all across America have called the Live Oak school district to complain about the way the flag-wearing students were treated. They're demanding the principal be fired, and urging the boys to file a lawsuit. It appears that Americans have just about had enough of being told what to think and what to say—and that's a healthy sign.
I have an additional suggestion: Both the offended students and the folks who run Live Oak High School ought to be required to take a civics class. And the first lesson ought to be memorizing a quotation ironically attributed to someone who persecuted Christianity, Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Including on your T-shirt.
Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.