COURTESY of The Carroll County Times
April 4, 2017
If you’re reading this, you can thank the First Amendment. Praised by people and groups across the political spectrums, this quintessential part of American society gives us the freedoms that define our nation and our values. However, the First Amendment isn’t as simple as the Founding Fathers first thought.
Earlier this year, about ten teachers on the first floor of Westminster High School hung up posters of a Muslim woman wearing an American flag with the slogan “We the PeopleAre Greater than Fear” in their classrooms. According to Westminster senior Sam Schoberg, the teachers hung up the posters for a variety of reasons: the beauty of the artwork and women on the posters, the message, and the support for marginalized groups.
Designed by artist Shepard Fairey, these posters of a Muslim woman, African American boy, and Hispanic women portray images of inclusivity in a tense political atmosphere. His posters quickly became a symbol of diversity and were printed in the Washington Post preceding the Women’s March. According to CNN, Fairey designed these posters to support three groups that he believed were most marginalized by the rhetoric of the 2016 election: Muslims, Hispanics, and African Americans.
“I think the campaigns were very divisive, more from one side than the other,” Fairey said in an interview with CNN. “But [it’s] just reminding people to find their common humanity, and look beyond maybe one narrow definition of what it means to be American.”
While Fairey’s overall message is diversity, according to CNN, he is a staunch critic of Donald Trump and his rhetoric, beliefs, and ego.
Then, on February 16th, about a month after the Fairey’s posters were originally hung up, a staff member at Westminster complained that they posters promoted an anti-Trump message; subsequently, the administration removed them. The Carroll County Board of Education supported the school’s decision to remove the posters, according to CBS Baltimore. “We don’t really have any guidelines in Carroll County for what can be displayed, other than the classroom can’t be a forum for politics,” said superintendent Stephen Guthrie told CBS Baltimore.
The removal of the posters didn’t go unnoticed, however. The school garnered media attention from several major outlets, such as The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, and The Huffington Post. Grey’s Anatomy star and activist Jesse Williams even retweeted the Huffington Post article. The issue raised questions about the freedom of expression in schools.
Do we, as Americans, really have unlimited freedom of speech? What happens if we attack or threaten another person or a group with our words? For example, the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who call themselves a “White Patriotic Christian organization […] that believes in the preservation of the White race and the United States Constitution as it was originally written,” according to their website. Although the KKK is a widely known white supremacist group, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defended their right to distribute racially motivated pamphlets in Cape Girardeau, MO. The ACLU defends the First Amendment at all costs, even if it is unpopular.
But do these same freedom of speech rights apply to students in school? In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in Tinker vs. Des Moines that middle-schooler Mary Beth Tinker and high-schoolers John Tinker and Christopher Eckerdt could lawfully wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. This court case’s ruling proved that students can indeed speak up peacefully in school.
But what happens when these acts of speech impede on other’s political ideology? We might think these court cases and news articles are far and few between. But right here in Maryland, a mere 33 miles from Atholton, the students and staff at Westminster High School have utilized and explored their First Amendment rights.
The removal of the posters upset many students at Westminster: “The initial reaction was confusion. How is diversity anti-Trump?” Schoberg said. Yet, these students channelled their anger into action. Students at Westminster created the “We The People” group, inspired by the title of Fairey’s posters. We The People has one clear-cut message: “Celebrating diversity in our community is not a partisan statement,” as stated on their Twitter feed @WethePeople_WHS.
Then, on March 1, 2017, the We The People organized a pro-diversity demonstration after the removal of Fairey’s diversity posters from their school walls. In the days prior to March 1, the group started a GoFundMe page. “It raised $4000 and we bought 600 shirts that we distributed for free to the student body,” Schoberg said. The shirts—printed with Fairey’s Muslim-American poster originally hung up on the walls at Westminster—were distributed the day before, on February 28. According to Schoberg, this was a student movement, so the teachers did not wear these shirts.
We The People, which Schoberg helps to lead, is a group that promotes diversity without taking a political stance. On their Twitter, the group said that “our message comes from the image from the shirt themselves, not from the artist’s opinion.” The day of the t-shirt demonstration, We The People posted on Twitter two pictures of students wearing the shirts: a girl holding up a sign that reads “I’m a liberal” and a boy holding a sign that reads “Proud Republican.” The photos were captioned with “Diversity is a bipartisan value.”
Two days later, on March 3, Carroll CAN, a network for progressives and independents who work together for social justice, organized a Rally for Diversity from 3 pm-6 pm at the Carroll County Board of Education. They believe that “students of all colors, religions, sexualities, genders and abilities should know they’re just as welcome within school walls as any other student,” according to the Carroll CAN website. This group rallied in solidarity with the March 1st event held at Westminster High School. Schoberg attended the rally and thought, “It was an extremely powerful event. Lot’s of people from all ages and ethnicities. There were speakers from around the county who spoke about race and gender issues.” The rally encouraged community members to bring signs, flags, and banners; however, the rally was non-partisan and no anti-Trump signs were permitted.
All of the events surrounding the diversity posters have sparked progressive conversation throughout the building, Schoberg said. “One government teacher had all bilingual students write ‘Love your neighbor’ on his whiteboard,” he said.
Schoberg and We The People will be meeting with the Carroll County Board of Education to discuss moving forward and ensure that diversity is celebrated throughout the county. Additionally, Schoberg encourages advocacy and speaking out. “Don’t leave the fight against intolerance to somebody else,” he said.
Schoberg and the students at Westminster High School didn’t just read about the First Amendment in their government textbooks, but they utilized their freedom of speech and created a peaceful movement in the process.
If there is one thing Americans can agree on, it’s the importance of freedom. In a time when Russian civilians are killed for criticizing their president and North Koreans are essentially incommunicado with the rest of the world, freedom of speech is something to not only value but to utilize. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”