The Controversy Over a Teacher’s Criticism of a Student’s Romney/Ryan T-Shirt, and a Possible Solution for the Future

Updated:
Posted in: Constitutional Law

Sixteen-year-old Samantha Pawlucy, a student at Philadelphia’s Charles Carroll High School, has suddenly found herself in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign.  The spotlight fell on Samantha after she wore a Romney/Ryan T-shirt to school, only to be derided by her geometry teacher, Lynette Gaymon, for doing so.

More specifically, news reports say that Gaymon called others into the room to laugh at Samantha’s shirt; told Samantha that the school was “a Democratic school”; compared Samantha’s wearing the Romney/Ryan shirt to her wearing a KKK shirt; asked Samantha, “Are your parents Republican?” and ultimately told Samantha to leave the classroom.

Gaymon has since apologized, in a letter that was read to the school by its principal, in which Gaymon said that she meant her remarks to be “light and humorous.”  But actually, the so-called humor seems to have been quite hurtful, and entirely at a student’s expense. Suggesting that a student is doing something as deeply offensive as wearing a KKK shirt is hardly a “light and humorous” remark. Thus, I believe that Samantha deserved a much more genuine apology from Gaymon—one that acknowledged the seriousness of what had transpired, not one that brushed off what seems to have been a serious incident of the bullying of a student by a teacher, who was supposed to set a good example for students to follow.

Certainly, Samantha’s parents felt that the teacher’s remarks were neither light nor humorous.  Indeed, they now feel uncomfortable having her and their other high-school-age children continue to attend Charles Carroll High, with feelings against Samantha running high.

And indeed, when Samantha tried to return to school—even after having seen fellow students’ threats against her posted on Facebook—she was afraid to face her yelling fellow students. (As I’ve discussed in several prior columns here on Justia’s Verdict, such as this one, the question of schools’ ability to punish students’ school-related Facebook speech is not yet definitively settled.)

At home, too, Samantha’s family has received threatening phone calls. Supporting her when she came back to school, however, was a group of veterans and other free speech supporters who, hearteningly, were demonstrating in support of her First Amendment rights.

Romney himself also called the teen, though he only reached and spoke with her parents.  The call is reminiscent of the call that President Obama made to Sandra Fluke after Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut.”  Both calls were appropriately made to reassure and support ordinary people who had become, not at their own behest, the centerpieces of national political controversies. Of course, each call had a political purpose as well, but each call was also made simply for the sake of human decency, since ordinary people had suddenly found themselves in the middle of a political maelstrom that they did not intentionally create but now had to live with.

A Possible Way to Prevent Such School Speech Incidents From Occurring in the Future: Educate Students and Teachers Alike About Students’ First Amendment Rights

This incident might not have happened, had everyone at Charles Carroll High been educated about students’ free speech rights, and especially about the key 1969 Supreme Court precedent of Tinker v. Des Moines Ind. Comm.  Sch. Dist. 

In the Tinker case, students’ First Amendment rights to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands was upheld. The students there were around Pawlucy’s age:  Pawlucy is 16 and the Tinker armband-wearers were 13, 15, and 16, respectively.  Tinker held that for school authorities to be able to constitutionally silence student speech, they must have evidence that the speech at issue would (1) substantially interfere with the work of the school, or (2) impinge upon the rights of other students.  The Court so held, in part, because of its respect for what it called our “relatively permissive, often disputatious society,” where dissent is to be permitted and even welcomed.

Ironically, in the Pawlucy case, the student’s speech—that is, her T-shirt’s message—did not interfere with the work of the school, nor did it impinge upon others’ rights, but the teacher’s speech certainly did so.  By ridiculing Pawlucy, Gaymon interfered with the geometry lesson she was supposed to be teaching, and she also impinged on Pawlucy’s free speech right to wear her political T-shirt, as well, by taunting the girl.

Gaymon apparently failed to understand the basic principle that was set forth in Tinker—the simple tenet that students retain their free speech rights while they are in school, particularly when they are simply wearing clothing that—like the Tinker armbands and Pawlucy’s T-shirt—that silently conveys a peaceable message.   Every student and teacher should know that rule.

In sum, the First Amendment answer here was very clear, due to the clear parallel to the precedent set in Tinker.  This was thus as easy case—especially since the class that Gaymon taught was Geometry, where Gaymon’s comments were entirely irrelevant to the subject matter of the class.

Interestingly, though, had Pawlucy faced similar comments about her Romney/Ryan T-shirt from a teacher in a History or Social Studies class, the issue would have been much more difficult from a First Amendment point of view.

In History or Social Studies classes, there has to be broad leeway for teachers and students alike to voice their views, even if those views are questionable or arguably offensive, in order to preserve academic freedom.  And in such classes, debate—including political debate—ought to be welcomed.  Moreover, when such debates do occur, students and teachers alike need to have thick skin, and to learn to give as good as they get. But in no public-school classroom should the claim “This is a Democratic School,” or “This is a Republican School” ever be made by a teacher.  To make such statements is to chill all dissent.

Moreover, even in History or Social Studies classes, singling out one student as a scapegoat because of the T-shirt she wears may still be problematic, despite the nature of the class.  There’s a line between spirited debate and bullying, and teachers and students alike need to watch that line.  Just look at the case of Samantha Pawlucy, who, according to news reports, has been bullied right out of her school, and is afraid to return there.

  • Claude Giroux

    Solution, fire the racist teacher instead of allowing a racist dirtbag to keep her job. There’s better teachers who are looking for work who won’t try to force their agenda on our students.

  • Sarah Newman

    Interesting I didn’t know there were Republican and Democratic High Schools??