Howell High School economics teacher Jay McDowell says he didn’t like where the discussion was going after a student told his classmates he didn’t “accept gays,” so McDowell kicked the boy out of class for a day. In return, the teacher was kicked out of his Michigan school for a day — suspended without pay for violating the student’s free speech rights.
The incident has sparked intense debate in Howell, about 45 miles northwest of Detroit, over defending civil rights without trampling on the First Amendment. It’s gained far wider attention since the Livingston County Press & Argus released video of a 14-year-old gay student from another city defending McDowell at a Howell school board meeting.
Free speech and freedom of religion v. political correctness: which will prevail? (And why is an economics class dabbling in sociology anyway?)
On Oct. 20, McDowell told a student in his classroom to remove a Confederate Flag belt buckle. She complied, but it prompted a question from a boy about how the flag differs from the rainbow flag, a symbol of pride for the gay community. “I explained the difference between the flags, and he said, ‘I don’t accept gays,'” said McDowell, 42, who was wearing a shirt with an anti-gay bullying message.
But didn’t he just ‘bully’ the Confederate wearing buckle girl? And doesn’t the boy have the right to reject homosexuality if he wants to? Just as McDowell has the right to accept it?
McDowell said he told the student he couldn’t say that in class. “And he said, ‘Why? I don’t accept gays. It’s against my religion.’ I reiterated that it’s not appropriate to say something like that in class,” McDowell said Monday. McDowell said he sent the boy out of the room for a one-day class suspension. Another boy asked if he also could leave because he also didn’t accept gays. “The classroom discussion was heading in a direction I didn’t want it to head,” McDowell said.
Why can’t he say he opposes homosexuality? And why didn’t McDowell turn the discussion back to the central question, the question of the individual’s right to hold viewpoints and express them without fear of government (teacher) interference and quashing on the one hand and public civility on the other?
McDowell soon received a reprimand letter from the district that said his actions violated the students’ free speech rights as well as school policy. It also said he “purposefully initiated a controversial issue” by the wearing the T-shirt featuring the anti-gay bullying message. “I thought it was a really great, teachable moment,” McDowell said of his decision to remove the student from class.
A teachable moment teaches. A t-shirt objecting to bullying gays isn’t properly professional attire. That point can, and should be made in instruction, not political campaigning by a member of the faculty.
In any event the punishment doled out seems fair enough and equitable. The boy was unjustly removed from class and the teacher was suspended for just one day. Maybe both learned a valuable lesson.