Hard lessons about hateful speech

What would happen if a couple of teens walked into high school wearing “White Pride” shirts? And what if those shirts also suggested that all people of color should suffer death as punishment for not being white?

We wonder. There is much to wonder about after a couple of St. Charles North High School students wore shirts Monday declaring “straight pride” and emblazoned with a biblical quote suggesting homosexuals were an abomination who should be punished with death.

The shirts, especially on a day meant for tolerance, set off an uproar. That, in and of itself, can be a good thing, if everyone talking will listen with open hearts and minds. The shirt wearing came during anti-bullying “Ally Week” on a day students designed to stem abuse of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. Some students had organized the day following recent news stories about young people killing themselves after being harassed for being homosexual. The shirt wearing also came in a community where teen suicide spiked a few years ago and where many have been working hard to stop it. We have seen too many times that hate speech can lead to violence. Humans have beaten and killed other humans simply because they happen to be homosexual. That is sickening and wrong.

Wearing a “straight pride” shirt should be allowed because “gay pride” shirts were allowed. What is difficult to fathom is why these students think it's good to wear shirts that suggest gays should be put to death. Many religions teach that homosexuality is wrong, but that does not justify threats or any physical harm. And the fact is, homosexuality is neither a choice nor a disorder. That has been the agreed conclusion reached decades ago by the American Psychiatric Association and most other respected science groups.

But do the students who wore these shirts have a free speech right? They very well may. An appellate court found, in a previous case with Neuqua Valley High School, that a student had a right to wear a shirt that said, “Be happy, not gay.”

We certainly believe passionately in free speech. We believe also in responsible speech. We believe, too, that no one learns anything when everyone keeps their views to themselves. And so, while painful, frightening and dangerous, the debate this hate speech sparked can help.

We who believe in free speech learn we must speak out against hate speech while allowing it. It is wrong to suggest gays be put to death just as it would be wrong to suggest heterosexuals be killed. Or whites. Or Christians. Or people of any ability or disability. And public schools must be places where all students feel welcome, at home and able to flourish. Students should have a right to free speech, but we all need to practice responsible speech. We all need to learn again that words can hurt and bigotry is wrong. The one thing that should not be tolerated by all of us is intolerance toward any of us.

Anti-gay shirts spark unrest at St. Charles North High School

Shirts become free speech fight at St. Charles North