Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech – Chase Harper

Chase Harper was a student at Poway High School in San Diego. Every year the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) sponsors the “Day of Silence” to protest the bullying and harassment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.

On the other side of the coin is the “Day of Truth” sponsored by the Christian based Alliance Defense League and supported by Christian organizations like Focus on the Family which claims that events like the “Day of Silence” promote homosexuality and “creates a hostile climate for students of faith.”

Exactly how promoting tolerance for gays creates a hostile climate for Christians escapes me at the moment. Then again, I never expect sense from Focus on the Family.

On the “Day of Truth” supporters are encouraged to spread the message "true tolerance means that people with differing -- even opposing -- viewpoints can freely exchange ideas and respectfully listen to each other. It's time for an honest conversation about homosexuality. There's freedom to change if you want to. Let's talk.”

The problem of course with this message is the assumption that homosexuality is a choice and an immoral choice at that. A Christian’s idea of “true tolerance” is to let them disparage folks for something they don’t appear to have any control over because of the ignorant mumblings of unwashed nomads and a repressed homosexual named Paul.

Again, I digress. Let’s get back to Chase.

Chase was apparently a good Christian and, since there didn’t appear to be any organized counter demonstration to the call for tolerance for homosexuals at his school, Chase decided to take matters into his own hands. He put two strips of adhesive tape, one on the front and one on the back, on a T-shirt. On the tape on the front he wrote “Be Ashamed, Our School Embraced What God Has Condemned” and on the tape on the back he wrote “Homosexuality Is Shameful.”

He then wore the T-shirt to school as a protest to the “Day of Silence.” He sure was demonstrating tolerance wasn’t he?

The school demanded that Chase remove the messages, remove the shirt or go home. Chase and his family eventually sued the Poway school for violating Chase’s 1st Amendment rights.

This is a tricky one. Chase is entitled to his opinion and he is entitled to express his opinion regardless of how rotten that opinion might be. The question is whether he is entitled to express it anywhere and at any time?

I see two problems with Chase. The first is that invoking your right to free speech is not always appropriate. Someone might think that profanity and pornography are acceptable but wearing a T-shirt covered with four letter words and naked bodies to a little league baseball game would understandably be frowned upon by even the most liberal individuals. I have serious problems with Christians and with Christianity but wearing something proclaiming those issues to work or to the local church carnival would be equally inappropriate.

The second problem I have with Chase, and why I think the school was right, is that his T-shirt was an expression of intolerance. Even if you find someone’s ideas or lifestyle distasteful, you are still obligated to tolerate them.

Tolerate does not mean approval or respect. I don’t approve of the Nazi Party or the KKK and I certainly don’t respect them but I am obligated to tolerate them. That is a fundamental principle of secular Western and American Democracy.

Schools are obligated to teach secular Western Principles including tolerance for things that you may personally disapprove of. It’s a fundamental part of their educational mission. Chase’s action was an action of intolerance and totally incompatible with the democratic principle of tolerance. In other words it was in direct conflict with the school's mission. Therefore I agree that they had every right to make him remove the messages.

The ACLU didn’t agree with me and filed an Amicus brief in support of Chase but I don’t always agree with ACLU on everything. The U.S. district court determined that the school did do the right thing. Allow me to quote the court’s opinion.

“Public school students who may be injured by verbal assaults on the basis of a core identifying characteristic such as race, religion, or sexual orientation have a right to be free from such attacks while on school campuses. …students have the right to 'be secure and to be let alone.'...Being secure involves not only the freedom from physical assaults but from psychological attacks that cause young people to question their self-worth and their rightful place in society. The 'right to be let alone' has been recognized by the Supreme Court … as the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.''

In other words, your rights end where the next guy's begin.

Imagine the reaction if someone came to school with a T-shirt disparaging Blacks or Jews or Christianity? The howls of outrage would be echoing from sea to shining sea with nary a naysayer outside the lunatic fringe. Why is it ok then to disparage homosexuals because someone’s religion says homosexuality is sinful?

As has been noted by President Obama, because your religion says so is not a valid argument in the secular arena and this is still a secular country operating under secular laws.

Chase Harper was, and apparently still is, a Christian that thinks it's ok to condemn homosexuals. If he wanted to wear his silly T-shirt in the park or walking down a public street, he would have been within his rights, uncouth, but within his rights, but wearing it to school was wrong.

He is entitled to his opinion even if it stinks like last week’s garbage. If he wants to express his opinions about homosexuality, allow me to suggest he try it in Greenwich Village in NYC. I’m sure his message will be warmly received there.

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