Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, young movie fans could enthusiastically anticipate the release of a new “Star Wars” movie without triggering a heavy-handed reprisal from school officials who perhaps identify too closely with the Empire.
Unfortunately, we live in a different era, as Rosenberg, Tex., seventh grader Colton Southern learned recently when he wore a t-shirt to school depicting a character from “Star Wars: the Force Awakens,” the highly-anticipated addition to the iconic film franchise. The t-shirt contained an image of a character wielding a blaster, an indispensable tool of the movie’s villainous storm troopers.
Although Colton reportedly had worn the same t-shirt to school several times before without incident, school administrators told him last week the shirt was prohibited under the school’s dress code, which prohibits “symbols oriented toward violence.” As Colton’s father pointed out to the local ABC affiliate, however, “the weapon shown is fictional as is the character holding it,” and his son is a model citizen without “a violent bone in his body.”
School officials were undeterred, and countered that in the make-believe universe of Star Wars, the blaster would be considered a weapon. (Hardcore Star Wars fans might retort that Imperial blasters, as “weapons” go, are actually very progressive, with a setting designed to temporarily incapacitate a target without permanent injury).
In fact, Colton’s father appeared stunned by the school’s response: “You're talking about a Star Wars t-shirt, a week before the biggest movie of the year comes out,” Colton’ father told a reporter. “He’s just an excited kid for the movie.”
Officials at the Lamar Consolidated Independent School District claimed they went easy on the boy by insisting that he only cover up the offending image, rather than simply punishing him for it.
But First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh said that’s not the argument school officials should be looking for: “Actually, even T-shirts depicting real weapons are constitutionally protected against K-12 school discipline,” he wrote in the Washington Post. The First Amendment requires “real evidence that the T-shirts are likely to substantially disrupt the educational process (something that’s highly unlikely here); categorical bans on all depictions of weapons, regardless of whether they are disruptive, would be unconstitutionally overbroad.”
Unfortunately, far too many school administrators have been seduced by the dark side of anti-gun hysteria into behaving as if any implement, gesture, image, or vocalization that merely hints at a firearm, or some fictional variant of a firearm, were tantamount to a violent outburst. Whatever mind tricks may have led to this bizarre state of affairs, it is clearly at odds with reality and mainstream culture, two factors that one would hope play a role in educating the next generation of Americans.
It’s disturbing, the force with which this “zero tolerance” orthodoxy is pressed. With one such example following another, it’s as if millions of voices suddenly cried out for sanity, and were suddenly silenced by the threat of school discipline and costly legal battles to clear their kids’ names.
The situation has gotten so out of hand that some states are now striking back with legislative solutions, which may provide a new hope for a saner, more reality-centered approach.
Let’s hope so. We’d all like to see our public officials approach student instruction with the rational, deliberate thinking they are supposed to be imparting to the children in their care. Once again they have disappointed us, but it probably won’t be for the last time.