On October 20, 2010, Jay McDowell, an Economics teacher at Howell (Michigan) High School chose to bring his own politics into the classroom rather than using a perfect opportunity to teach about the First Amendment (particularly about freedom of speech). Before you read any further, it might be helpful to get some background about the incident from this article by AP writer Jeff Karoub.
The basics are this: he kicked a student out of class for saying “I don’t accept gays” after he had asked another student to take off a Confederate flag belt buckle and the first student had asked how that was any different from wearing rainbow flag insignia. I’m sorry, Mr. McDowell, but however insensitive you feel any of the students were being in this situation, they actually have a right to say whatever they want to about their personal beliefs (as long as they don’t cross into the realm of inciting riots, yelling “fire” in a crowded building, etc., which doesn’t seem to be the case here). Depending on the actual school policies, the student with the Confederate flag belt buckle probably also had a right to wear that. She probably even could have been wearing a Nazi Party swastika if it wasn’t specifically banned. I’m not saying she’d have a lot of friends, but that doesn’t mean you can tell her to take it off, or not say it, or kick her out of class.
So what was the actual teachable moment here? Without giving away his position on any of these issues, Mr. McDowell should have pulled out his copy of the Bill of Rights and reviewed the First Amendment with his class. They could have had a discussion of what freedom of speech means. Yes, you can wear a confederate flag belt buckle. Yes, you can wear a rainbow flag shirt. Yes, you can say you “don’t accept gays.” Yes, you can say you L-O-V-E to be gay. That’s what makes this country great. We can all believe in and say different things and it is not only legal but protected by the First Amendment.
Instead of complaining about being suspended without pay for violating the student’s free speech rights, Mr. McDowell should reflect on what it is he should be teaching in class.