May 6, 2005
By David Weintraub
Susie Chapman’s uninformed response to Jeri McGiverin (“Offending Others Shouldn’t Be Sanctioned at Schools,” The Observer, April 25) reveals two things about the writer: She didn’t see the play “Offsides,” and she is unfamiliar with the law pertaining to student expression.
Ms. Chapman is correct that The Student’s Rights and Responsibilities Handbook states that “the rights of individuals must be exercised in a way that does not infringe upon the rights of others, or [threaten] the general welfare of the society. Some restrictions may therefore be lawfully imposed by governments, including school boards, upon the manner in which individual rights may be exercised.”
Her interpretation of this language, however, is wildly off the mark. The handbook provides examples of expression that may be restricted; these include “disrupting class” or “subjecting other students to verbal abuse.” The mere expression of a viewpoint with which she disagrees does not constitute an infringement upon her rights. The policy language she cites cannot be interpreted to supplant firmly established federal law, guided by the oft repeated principle that “students do not leave their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate.”
What would truly infringe upon the rights of others would be a policy that prohibited students from discussing their lives. If a student with two dads, for example, were told that she could not talk about her family because its existence offends others, that would be a genuine infringement upon her rights.
Had she seen the play in question, Ms. Chapman would find it difficult to justify the statement that it “violated established rules.” To the contrary, the play was reviewed and deemed to be an appropriate, mature treatment of an issue that is painful for numerous students.
Finally, Ms. Chapman quotes from Loudoun County schools’ Family Life Education policy, implying that the play somehow violated the program’s philosophy that the family is the primary structure of society, and that parents should be the primary family life educators for their children. This, more than anything else, reveals Ms. Chapman’s reliance on the inaccurate representations made by Del. Dick Black, who also did not see the play. The play that I saw was a sophisticated work about assumptions and secrets, friendship and loyalty, and being true to oneself rather than to an image held by others. It had no sexual content whatsoever, and certainly did nothing to “disrupt” Ms. Chapman’s freedom to teach her children about sexuality. I’m afraid that she has been mislead and used in the service of a political agenda.