Too often, the issue of students’ right of free expression is regarded as a “liberal” concern. This may be because students who suffer censorship often are perceived as only those who seek to address issues about sex and sexuality, for example, or to criticize restrictive school policies.
In reality, student commentary comes in all ideological shapes and sizes, and all of it should be entitled to equal respect in the marketplace of ideas. Exhibit A is the work of John Butterfield of California’s Rio Americano High School. Recently, Butterfield wrote an influential column criticizing his school on the subject of sexuality – but it was no liberal diatribe.
Butterfield was disturbed by what he viewed as a sexually provocative dance routine performed by the school’s cheerleading squad at an Aug. 24 pep rally. “This is a high school rally, not the latest music video,” he wrote in a Sept. 26 op-ed column in his student newspaper, The Mirada, “and when the song team spends most of the routine bent over, while it may [elicit] catcalls from the audience, it is simply not appropriate.”
To their credit, the administrators of Rio Americano did not prevent this unflattering column from being published (and indeed, stopping it would have been unlawful under California’s Student Free Expression Law in any case). Like all well-argued editorial commentary, the column was meant to provoke public discussion, and it did – more effectively than Butterfield could ever have hoped.
The piece came to the attention of Bill O’Reilly’s producers at Fox News, and O’Reilly’s program aired video excerpts of the booty-shaking dancers (who, in all candor, were wearing outfits much more G-rated than can be seen on a typical Saturday afternoon at the mall). The column and its resulting outcry caused the dance team to reassess and revise the routine – exactly the outcome that Butterfield hoped to elicit.
This is what uncensored student journalism can achieve when administrators exercise restraint and good judgment (and obedience to the law): it can alert those in the adult world to problems they may have overlooked, and it can prompt a dialogue that brings about change.
Politically conservative parents, school-board members and legislators who out of respect for authority may be tempted to endorse open-ended discretion for school administrators to censor controversial material should remember this lesson. The same law that protects the gay student’s right to publish a column pleading for acceptance is also the law that lets John Butterfield advocate his viewpoint without fear of being censored or punished.