Well, they’re at it again in Jena. This time it’s 1st Amendment rights that seem to be nettling the powers-that-be.
LaSalle Parish Schools Superintendent Roy Breithaupt has told a group of students at Jena High School that they can’t wear t-shirts that say “Free the Jena 6.” They cause “too much of a stir,” he says.
As we’ve reported at S&R, the case of the students known now as the Jena 6 has revealed a pattern of racism and repression towards the small minority of blacks in this central Louisiana town. There has clearly been a dual system at work – one set of punishments for white students who’ve fostered problems (and who created the scenario that led to the attack on a white student that resulted in the over harsh response by Jena’s legal system).
And now the school superintendent – who was party to the inequitable treatment of Jena High’s black students – has muzzled the symbolic protest of black students against the unfair treatment they believe their friends and relatives have received. As the parent of one of the students noted:
They werenâ€™t doing anything other than wearing the shirts, The school doesnâ€™t have a dress code. They were covered. Theyâ€™re trying to tell them what they can and canâ€™t wear. – John Jenkins, father of one of the Jena 6
There’s a history of symbolic speech in public schools dating back to the 1960’s when a student won the right to wear a black arm band in protest of the Vietnam War. Over the course of the last 40 years or so, students have had their free speech rights upheld in some cases, denied in others. The denials mostly had to do with obscenity charges or with, as in the case of the recent “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case in Alaska, the endorsement of illegal activity – both of which fall into the category of causing discipline or educational problems for a school.
If the students at Jena choose to push this case, they stand a good chance of winning. Simply because other students, teachers, or administrators disagree with a sentiment expressed symbolically – whether that sentiment is against what they believe is an unjust war or for the freeing of persons they feel are unfairly being punished – doesn’t mean that the students expressing the sentiment cannot do so.
Given the tenor of the Roberts SCOTUS decisions, however, one must wonder whether these students, already being taught that there are two kinds of justice in the America they live in – one kind for whites, one for them – will receive yet another lesson in the unfairness of things….