I stumbled across this news story recently about a northern California school district that forced student-athletes to take off tshirts with the message "I Can't Breathe" or risk forfeiting the contest. Enough of the male players agreed for the game to continue, but one school had to forfeit its contest because not enough female basketball players complied with the demand.
The term "I Can't Breathe" has been linked to the case of Eric Garner, who died from a chokehold utilized by NYPD during an arrest. That incident, along with the acquittal of a police officer involved in the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown, has sparked protest across the country and promises to continue to stay at the heart of the movement to reform police protocol and curb police brutality.
This event in northern California seems like a modern-day version of Tinker, the 1969 case that affirmed that students--even in the K-12 setting--have the Constitutional right to peacable and symbolic protest. In Tinker, a group of students were disciplined for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court ruled that such expression was protected UNLESS is caused a substantial disruption. Fast forward to 2014, the California school district claimed that its actions were a safety precaution "should someone get upset and choose to act out."
Public universities have even less latitude in fostering and promoting the free speech and expression of all viewpoints--no matter how offensive, unpopular, or divisive. Recently I had the privilege to write a piece for the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) Leadership Exchange related to open forums and designated free speech zones. As the new year begins, it is imperative that each university and college campus reevaluate not only its policies regarding speakers and protests but also collaborate with campus security to provide safe and open venues for dialogue to occur within the campus community. The heckler's veto or the mere fear of disruption do not trump Consitutional rights.