Are These Students’ Anti-Gay Badges Free Speech or Bullying?

Several high school students in California are stirring up controversy after adorning their school ID cards with anti-gay symbols. The badges feature the iconic rainbow flag and a red circle with a line through it. At first, officials at Shadow Hills High School in Indio, Calif., had allowed the badges to be worn, citing free speech protections. Since then, the Desert Sands Unified School District has ordered the anti-gay symbols removed for the time being, without giving specific reasoning.

Should these students be allowed to display these views? Legally speaking, that’s not a terribly easy question to answer. The 1969 Supreme Court ruling Tinker v. Des Moines found that students retain their First Amendment speech protections even at school. That case dealt with high school students who were disciplined for choosing to wear black armbands at school in protest of the Vietnam War; the ruling found this kind of symbolic speech could not be prohibited, as they harmed no one and were not disruptive.

But is the situation in Indio really comparable? Let’s look.

Several students have told teachers they have experienced feeling intimidated since the badges began appearing on campus. A student also recently affixed one of the anti-gay symbols to the classroom window of the coordinator of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance group. But it hasn’t stopped there: AP U.S. History teacher Amy Oberman says there was a disciplinary incident last week which involved clear anti-gay bullying.

Speaking to The Desert Sun, Shadow Hills senior and Gay Straight Alliance vice president Michelle Bachman says the badges are “definitely hate speech, but legally, we can’t do anything until these students start to physically harass us, which I believe is an injustice.”

To call these badges, which had been sported by a dozen students, an expression of free speech is a stretch, at best. These symbols target a specific group of individuals: members of the LGBTQ community. Though Tinker v. Des Moines protects students’ free speech, that does not protect the right to open the door to abuse, bullying or disruption of the learning environment everyone is entitled to.

Worse, these anti-gay badges target an extremely vulnerable population. Students who identify as LBGTQ or question their orientation or gender identity report substantially higher rates of bullying and harassment than their peers do. In fact, according to one figure, nine in 10 LBGTQ students say they have been bullied.

Sure, many students are bullied at school. However, the sort of bullying that targets someone based on an ascribed trait — be it gender, sexual orientation, race or religion — can cause deep damage. LBGTQ youth are at an extremely high risk for depression (by six-fold) and suicide (over eight-fold) when compared to their peers. Studies cited by the Center for Disease Control have found direct links between bullying at school and these negative patterns. In fact, regardless of whether a student identifies as LBGTQ or not, depression and drug use was lowest when homophobic teasing was absent altogether.

If a group of students began wearing badges featuring a Christian crucifix and a red circle with a line through it, there would be little hesitation — those badges would be removed immediately. Or, as Shadow Hills teacher Amy Oberman put it: “I”m Jewish. If it had been a little swastika on my window, what’s the difference?”

The administrators at the Desert Sands Unified School District were right to ask the badges to be removed. However, the official position is that some type of investigation must take place before a final decision is made on whether or not to allow students to reclaim their anti-gay insignia. It should be plainly clear, though, that these badges are a form of hate speech and have no place in the classroom.

Photo Credit: chrisbradshaw / ThinkStock

99 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill1 years ago

That is definitely free speech. Just like writing on the sidewalks with chalk is. We are raising a generation of pampered greenhouse flowers! They will never be able to survive in the real world.

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Karen C.
Karen C1 years ago

Bullying- use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants. (this is from google).
Wearing badges to discourage being who you really are is definitely bullying.

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Alexander Hay-Whitton

Free speech and bullying are regrettably not mutually exclusive. Free speech does not mean "freedom for you to say anything I don't object to."

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Amanda M.
Amanda M1 years ago

The school made the right call on this one. Not only are the school badges technically school property, the clear anti-LGBT nature of the badges means that other students with homophobic opinions will see these badges as license to bully or intimidate LGBT students. The last thing that we need in this world is more bullying and hate!

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Timothy W.
Timothy W1 years ago

Berny p.
Interesting. You aren't anti gay or anti anything, but yet you think of yourself as normal and others...what? I have never had a problem ordering a black coffee. Not once has it been suggested that might be racist. By the way. If someone says someone is white trash they are referring to an individual. A white person who is trash, not an entire race. I don't like the term but lets be clear. It is not used to describe an entire race, but a person. When some one says they don't like blacks, they just described an entire race or group. Not a small culture within. You should read what you wrote and try looking at it with non straight white eyes.

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Timothy W.
Timothy W1 years ago

ron D.
You argue freedom of speech, even though that speech is harmful to others. Where did you stand when some schools and districts across the nation tried to ban any form of speech that was positive toward LGBT kids.

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Berny p.
Berny p1 years ago

Free speech is allow for some...not for others.
If I say I dont like blacks,yellow,brown or other I am call a racist....that I dont like them because of may be their culture,their religion,their hates towards women who come with them is completly irrellevent ...ie the law...
BUT if black ,yellow or brown people call me white trash or worse......this is ok ...they are just expressing themselves!
When you cant go somewhere and ask for a black coffee...vender...you mean a coffee without milk....NO I mean a black coffee.....I am called a racist!
Politicaly correctness as gone far to far so dont be surprised if people star to kick back!
I am not anti gay or anti anything but it would be nice if the normal person could say what they think!

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Marie W.
Marie W1 years ago

Actually aren't they defacing school property?

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Karen H.
Karen H1 years ago

It's free speech. What would the school do if LGBT supporters wore rainbow badges? If one side can wear "anti" badges, the other side should be able to wear "pro" badges. Free speech all around. If the "anti" students begin attacking or abusing others physically, verbally, or both, the school must step in.

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