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The First Amendment allows us to participate in a marketplace of ideas. It is a public forum where ideas are shared, tested, adopted or rejected through discussion and debate. It is a place where we can learn from others and share our ideas, form coalitions and create change on issues important to us.
But not everyone shares the same opinions especially on controversial topics.
It’s important to remember that although we may passionately disagree and feel hurt by the words of others in the marketplace, we all share the First Amendment right to participate. Contributing our own viewpoints is one way to counter ideas we may disagree with.
Ideally, if we all learn to responsibly demonstrate respect for the experiences and perspectives of others, we can contribute to a safe environment where all voices can be heard and considered. Part of being responsible means thinking carefully about the effect our words have on others.
In 2005, students at Homewood-Flossmoor High School expressed their views on homosexuality through T-shirts. Find out what happened.
In April 2005, a group of students at Homewood-Flossmoor High School decided to promote awareness about the lack support systems at the school for gay and lesbian students. They also wanted to promote tolerance at the suburban school of roughly 2,900 students. Jamison Liang, Alissa Norby, and Myka Held planned to circulate T-shirts with the slogan, “Gay? Fine by Me.” The event was inspired by a college awareness campaign that started at Duke University, which used the same slogan and T-shirts on campus.
Christian students at the school decided to counter it with their own T-shirts because of their religious beliefs, which say that homosexuality is morally wrong.
Their T-shirts, printed by the Family Harvest Church in Tinley Park, said “crimes against God” on the front and “discrimination against… my 10 Commandments, my prayers, my values, my faith, my God.” It also included the First Amendment.
School officials said the students could wear their respective T-shirts, as long as they complied with the student code of conduct which prohibits promotion of drugs or violence.
Both sets of students wore their T-shirts to schools on April 19, 2005.
Students said there was noticeable tension in the school throughout the day as students passed each other in the hallways and sat in classrooms, according to media reports.
Some students wore T-shirts that directly mocked the “gay? fine by me” shirts with shirts that read, “gay? burn in hell,” and other variations of the phrase, including one with a gay slur and obscenities. Alissa Norby and Myka Held reported taunting and harassment by a few students. Norby and Held said they felt threatened on a few occasions when they were followed by students shouting at them.
A month after the T-shirt controversy, students petitioned the district school board to add sexual orientation to its non-discrimination clause in the parent-student handbook. The school board approved the change. This addition means that students can file a complaint for disciplinary action against another student or faculty member for discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The student council also approved the creation of a student Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).
The following year, school administration told the GSA they could sell the T-shirts for the awareness day from the club sponsor’s classroom but not in the cafeteria.
According to a 2010 article in the Voyager, Homewood-Flossmoor’s student newspaper, the “Crimes Against God” T-shirts did not resurface again after the 2005 event. The GSA is still listed among active student clubs on the Homewood-Flossmoor High School Website.
What can we learn from Homewood-Flossmoor?
The students at Homewood-Flossmoor are an example of what happens in a functioning marketplace of ideas. Speech is countered by more speech, in an environment where all voices can be heard. The government, in this case the school, did not try to silence speech by favoring one viewpoint over another.
Words have power and exercising our First Amendment rights isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes participating in the marketplace requires courage, particularly when our viewpoints could cause conflict among our peers. It may be easier to simply stay silent.
But what happens when we choose not to participate? When we don’t participate in the marketplace we lose our rights to influence decisions that can impact our lives.
Think about the people in the Freedom for All section. What would our lives be like today if these individuals and their coalitions chose not to voice their opinions?
What would happen if no one participated in the debates in our local communities and nationally?
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