What a Pornographer and a Preacher Could Teach Edina Schools

In the Name of Patriotism, the Edina School District Just Taught Students a Very Un-American Lesson


When I was in grad school at the University of Arizona, I took several courses at the law school from a man who wore, without fail, shiny leather pants and a shiny leather vest to every class. Not even chaps. Zero-vent cowhide. In Tucson. In triple-digit weather.

I think his name was Bob, but a lot of ephemera has been engraved on the hard drive since then so I can’t swear to it. He made me feel very rubber-neck-y, in a gross way.

The most salient media law precedents of the day involved Hustler Publisher Larry Flynt who, questionable taste in everything notwithstanding, was a free speech crusader. Naturally, I remember all three terms as if they were yesterday.

I remember in particular the precedent set in the then-recent Hustler magazine vs. Falwell, in which the court held that a jury of reasonable men would know that a feature declaiming Jerry Falwell’s deflowering in an outhouse by his mother was satire. It was an important precedent in terms of the bounds of political speech, and unless one of you wants to step forward to correct me I believe it still stands.

Leatherman’s classes taught me a couple of things. One, if you are going to skewer a living figure, make sure your parody eventually becomes so over the top no one can mistake it for news. And two, absolutely free as it must remain, speech has consequences.

I wonder if the Edina School District did the best thing recently when it agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the Edina High School Young Conservatives Club. I know enough school administrators to imagine that their fervent desire was to put a cork in the controversy that sparked the lawsuit.

But I am not sure the resolution teaches our youth the lesson about free speech, hate speech and consequences that the moment most desperately requires. Because nowhere in the history of the First Amendment, even the history that precedes Flynt, does it say that a person who has crossed a line in terms of expression shouldn’t have to account for that speech.

You ought to go back and read the fairly excellent coverage of the brouhaha in the Edina Zephyrus, the high school newspaper, but for the sake of propelling you to the end of this post here’s a synopsis: On November 9, students were called to a Veterans’ Day assembly (yeah, I know, mine weren’t either) that involved the Pledge of Allegiance, taps and some other patriotic observances, during which a group of students took a knee or sat. School administrators apparently knew this would occur and designated a place for it.

According to the Zephyrus and not contradicted by the complaint in the lawsuit that followed, the Young Conservatives tweeted out a video of their seated classmates along with some profane and cruel remarks.

“He can barely speak English,” said one, according to the Zephyrus. “Let’s all do something nice and pitch in for a plane ticket,” said another. And then there was, “At least we can relish in the fact that none of them are going to college and won’t amount to anything.”

Not to leave the bottom-feeding to the first set of students, the “EHS Anti-Fascists” fired back, among other things saying the conservatives “go home and put all their opinions and feelings on an anonymous Twitter page like some females on their periods yall some bitches FUCK EDINAYCC.”

Students in schools are entitled to free speech until it has an adverse effect on the learning environment, which it seems safe to assume is a threshold long crossed. Among other things, the principal had the president of the young conservatives – which was not an official school club so much as an ad-hoc group — delete the online chat where the “race-related” comments were made, effectively shuttering the clubhouse.

The parents of the young conservatives sued, insisting that their children’s free speech rights had been violated by a school policy that they respect the protesters’ right to their views even if they did not share them. Requiring respect of others’ beliefs, even in a school, was tantamount to muzzling the kids, the complaint alleged.

(Side note: We have parents demanding the right to teach their children disrespectful speech. So much for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.)

Scooters, right? Except the district and the parents – chief among them an employee of the Fox network — settled the suit. The district agreed to insert a sentence into the relevant policy saying a club could not be abolished solely because its members exercised their free speech. Officials also said in practice absolutely nothing changes. Nothing.

That was mid-February. Fast forward to last week and the episode is credited as the genesis of a bill requiring “academic balance” now under consideration at the Legislature that would prohibit “indoctrination” in schools: “Public education courses are not for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or antireligious indoctrination.”

Verbiage pretty much taken from a Katherine Kersten “investigation” last year sent to every household in the district by the Center of the American Experiment. Two Edina High School students testified at the Capitol, and as certain as veto seems the bill advanced to a second state Senate committee.

What counts as antireligious indoctrination? That’s not spelled out – something it’s not hard to imagine is intentional, if the issue is to claim the right to say anything you want in response to speech you don’t want to reply to respectfully.

How many of us remember the suicide contagion in Anoka-Hennepin School District during which some eight children as young as 12 took their own lives after being bullied over their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity? Adult confusion over exactly what constituted “neutral” speech about things LGBT was at the heart of that horror show.

Monday the Young Conservatives held a press conference in which they claimed victory. The district, they insisted, was “misleading” in saying it had admitted no wrongdoing and would not actually in practice change anything.

And why, having secured a bigger and arguably more easily manipulated platform, should they be anything other than greatly emboldened? Do we think that school tomorrow in Edina will feature more constructive and well-considered exchanges of views or more of the hate-filled shrieking pervasive on some college campuses?

And this isn’t a complaint about conservatives. The Antifa – which is what, the neo-Nazi youth of the left? – are getting the same message.

Circling back to my disappointment with the settlement, what might it have meant to let the courts parse the foundational principals at issue in the suit, to sift one person’s right to free speech from another person’s desire to respond to that speech in any way their animus moves them, consequence free? How much might Minnesota students have learned about what truly sets the United States and its constitution apart?

The suit may have gone away, but this culture war skirmish hasn’t. Indeed, it appears poised to gather steam.

True story about the pornographer and the preacher: They became friends, traveling the college lecture circuit to hold respectful debates about morality and free speech. They exchanged Christmas cards. Maybe they learned a thing or two from each other.

Too bad we won’t find out whether something similar could have transpired in Edina.


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