Little did Charles Carroll High School tenth-grader Samantha Pawlucy know that when she wore a Mitt Romney T-shirt to school, it would set off a freedom of speech firestorm that has apparently caught officials with the School District of Philadelphia off guard, and qualifies as yet another crisis for newly-installed district Superintendent Dr. William Hite Sr.
The 16-year-old Pawlucy was allegedly harassed by one of her teachers last month when she wore the T-shirt, and was told to either take off the t-shirt or leave the class. Pawlucy decided to leave the class.
The outrage has led to a throng of Pawlucy’s supporters cheering her on as she returned to classes on Tuesday, after missing several days over her unwillingness to acquiesce to her teacher’s demands.
Hite, barely a month into the job, has already had to deal with the fallout of the widespread teacher cheating scandal and the recent discrimination lawsuit filed by Action United, which claims the School Reform Commission’s decision to close as many as 64 schools will disproportionately affect minority and special-needs students.
Hite, for his part, has asserted his leadership throughout this situation, and struck a pre-emptive yet conciliatory tone with his statements on the matter.
“The Carroll High School Community — students, teachers, administrators, parents and neighbors — recently has been pulled into an argument that drove a wedge between families, friends and classmates. This has been disruptive and hurtful for a school whose success is drawn from its diverse and close-knit student body. And it has been particularly distressing to the Pawlucy family, whose daughter was targeted for simply expressing herself by wearing a T-shirt,” Hite wrote in a statement released by the district. “Over the next couple of weeks, I will join Mayor Michael Nutter and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan in working directly with the Carroll High School community to assist them in moving away from a divisive and damaging discourse towards a conversation that brings together diverse beliefs, inspires understanding, and heals.”
According to various media reports, Pawlucy had no problems returning to class.
Repeated phones calls to School District spokesman Fernando Gallard seeking comment on the district’s free speech policy, or of students wearing clothing with political messages or endorsements, weren’t returned as of Tribune press time.
Hite did allude to the future of Pawlucy’s teacher, Lynette Gaymon.
“Our efforts will not take away from the hard lesson learned when an educator acts thoughtlessly. We all concur that there is no room for that type of behavior from adults, especially in a classroom,” Hite said. “We will also support and stand by Samantha Pawlucy, Lynette Gaymon and all of the children and adults who have become targets of hatred and venom by individuals who demand that a wrong be righted with another wrong. There is no room in our community for that type of behavior, and we will not let it take root in our schools.
“Going forward, both as a school community and city, we will celebrate, embrace and respect our differences, and learn and grow from this teachable moment.”
The Pawlucy incident sheds a light on students’ freedom of speech, although not egregious enough by itself to solicit a reaction from the American Civil Liberties Union.
If contacted, the ACLU would certainly take up the case, said ACLU of Pennsylvania Senior Staff Attorney Mary Catherine Roper.
“The law is so very clear, and the teacher was nowhere close to the line. You do not call out a student in class, and by the student’s version of accounts, it was way over the line,” Roper said, noting that the Pennsylvania branch of the ACLU is perhaps the most active branch in terms of defending student’s freedom of speech and urges students and families to visit the ACLU’s website and become acquainted with student freedom of speech rights. “It is a shame the teacher did what she did, but I am pleased that the school district acted quickly to take action to defend the student’s rights.
“[Students] are compelled to go to school, but they should not have to give up their opinions to get an education,” continued Roper. “That’s the basic line here. No one should give up independent thought to get an education, and that is a principle everyone should embrace.”
Roper voiced concern over the level of vitriol this situation has caused, which has only been ratcheted up through menacing phone calls and threats received by both the Pawlucy family and Gaymon.
“I am really distressed, not only as an ACLU lawyer but as a person, by the subsequent attacks on [Pawlucy] and her family,” Roper said. “One of the things you ask is, where is this coming from? The whole point of having the right to have different opinions is to talk about those differences, not throw rocks.”
The ACLU certainly hasn’t shied away from such cases, and its website refers to the landmark 1969 ruling in the Tinker v. Des Moines case, in which the ACLU successfully defended the right of student Beth Tinker to wear a black armband in opposition of the Vietnam War. The ACLU was also instrumental in the 2003 case involving a student kicked out of school for wearing a T-shirt with a picture of former President George W. Bush with the caption “international terrorist” underneath. The judge in that case also ruled in the student’s favor.
"The court's decision reaffirms the principle that students don't give up their right to express opinions on matters of public importance once they enter school," said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan, after the judge’s ruling in that case. "Schools are not speech-free zones."