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Shades of gray

I happened to observe a snippet of an interesting class at Yates Arts-In-Education Magnet School last week.
The English teacher was trying to get a classroom of adolescents involved in the discussion of a book about a disobedient adolescent boy.
I haven’t read the book, but as I understand it, the boy was failing English. So, to annoy his teacher, he began humming “The Star Spangled Banner.” Under the Freedom of Speech, he argued that he could not be stopped.
The 13-year-olds in this class were not at all interested in this, so the teacher tried to spice things up. He compared the book to the real-life saga of Raymond Hosier Jr., 13, who is fighting a First Amendment battle over whether he can wear a rosary at Oneida Middle School. The teacher’s question: who is in the right?
Instantly, every eye was on the teacher. Now the kids had something to say.
In the end, they came up with an interestingly parsed answer, especially considering that this age-group is more known for its reliance on black-and-white than its understanding of the shades of gray.
They said that if someone is merely hiding behind the First Amendment to do something that would normally not be allowed, then the First Amendment should not protect him.
But if he genuinely acts out of a desire for free speech, or free religion, then the First Amendment should shield him from any mere school rule.
They didn’t wholly support Hosier, by the way. They seemed to consider it well within the realm of possibility that he was just wearing the rosary to irritate his principal after getting into a shouting match with him a week earlier.
It was interesting to hear them discuss it, because they quickly rejected the idea of zero-tolerance that their school district adheres to absolutely. They argued that true justice must consider the person’s intent, not just their action.
That is indeed how our courts work, to some extent. But somehow I don’t think the school district will abandon zero-tolerance anytime soon, even when faced with a federal lawsuit over a string of plastic rosary beads.

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