In a complex but welcome decision on one of the major student First Amendment cases of recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court this month effectively took a page from the old Saturday Night Live scripts featuring Gilda Radner’s addled news commentator, Emily Litella.
Litella inevitably closed her newscasts with an extended rant on some subject, only to realize, at the crescendo of her commentary, that she had misapprehended the question that had launched her virulent invective in the first place. Embarrassed, she would flash the audience a ghastly smile and chirp, “Never mind.”
That was pretty much the only thing left for the High Court to say when presented with an appeal of last year’s stunning ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in the case of Harper v. Poway Unified School District.
The case sprang from an incident three years ago at a San Diego-area high school, when the school – with the support of many administrators, teachers, and students – hosted the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network’s “Day of Silence” to encourage tolerance and support for those practicing homosexual behavior. Since several of his fellow students were wearing clothing promoting that behavior, Chase Harper elected to wear a shirt that questioned it. His read: “I will not accept what God has condemned,” and “Homosexuality is shameful. Romans 1:27.”
School officials ordered Harper to remove the shirt, calling it negative and inflammatory. When he declined to do so, they suspended him. One official even told Harper that he should “leave his faith in his car” when he comes to school. So much for “tolerance.”
Schools are supposed to be a dress rehearsal for participating in our democratic system. But no one asked the students wearing shirts promoting homosexual behavior to remove their apparel – or to consider the possibility that their clothing might be offensive to those who disagree with homosexual practices. So Harper and his family sued the school district, claiming a denial of First Amendment liberties and equal protection under the law. They requested a temporary injunction that would prevent the district from enforcing its highly arbitrary policy … and allow Chase and his T-shirt to resume their participation in future campus discussions.
Instead, the 9th Circuit ruled in favor of the school district, saying, in effect, that the Poway administrators could decide for themselves what political and religious positions were permissible on their campuses. Injunction be hanged.