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Celebrating America's tradition of courageous students

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  March 24, 2010 05:00 PM

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Spring is in the air, the time of weddings, graduations and high school proms. Emotions run high as loved ones participate in annual rites of passage. This year, one prom -- the canceled prom of Constance McMillen at the Itawamba Agricultural High School in Mississippi -- marks yet another proud American tradition: the student profile in courage.

McMillan, age 18, wanted to attend the high school prom wearing a tuxedo and escorting a same-sex date. Mean-spirited school officials cancelled the prom rather than permit McMillan to attend with her date or while wearing her attire of choice. A federal Judge this week held that Constance' constitutional rights were violated and that her "expression and communication falls squarely within the purview of the First Amendment." McMillen, who has been subject to hostility from classmates and community members, represents the best of American youth.

History is replete with examples of American students putting themselves on the line in defense of civil rights and equal justice, often in the face of popular prejudice.

Consider Shannon Faulkner, the first female cadet who entered the previously all-male bastion of the Citadel military academy. Although Faulkner subsequently resigned, citing emotional and psychological abuse and physical exhaustion, the Citadel now has more than 100 female cadets.

We all should know the name of Massachusetts resident Ellery Schempp who, as a high school student in 1963, objected to daily reading of Bible passages in school -- a challenge that Schempp took to the Supreme Court and won.

Another famous free speech hero was student Mary Beth Tinker, who was suspended along with her brother and their friend, for wearing black arm bands to school in protest of the Vietnam war. Their courage resulted in one of the U.S. Supreme Court's most important victories for student free speech in 1969. In Massachusetts, student speech rights were vindicated in 1996 when Jeffrey and Jonathan Pyle, students at South Hadley High School, successfully sued the local school committee, claiming the committee's dress code violated their state free expression rights.

More recently, Lindsay Earls, a 16-year-old junior at a Oklahoma high school, challenged a requirement that all students submit to drug tests in order to participate in extra-curricular activities. Earls, a member of the choir and academic quiz team, challenged the practice under the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches. Although the Supreme Court ultimately ruled 5-4 against Earls' challenge, her willingness to question unfair laws showed tremendous courage. Another recent example is that of 10-year-old Will Phillips, who last November took a stand by refusing to recite the pledge of allegiance to a country that discriminates.

By far, the most historically memorable instance of students showing bravery in the face of bigotry was the case of the "Little Rock Nine," the African-American students who in 1957 withstood threats of physical and verbal abuse in order to cross the color line and integrate public schools in Arkansas. Buoyed by the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, requiring integration of public schools, these nine students withstood months of abuse from fellow students and community members in order to do what was right for their country. Ultimately, it took the federal troops to force then-Arkansas Governor Orvel Faubus to back down and permit the students to enroll.

To be sure, attending a prom with the date of your choice may not compare to integrating public schools under armed escort. Nonetheless, let's all remind Constance that she is part of a long line of courageous American students who have helped our nation inch closer to realizing its noble aspiration of ensuring free speech and equal rights for all.

By the way, did you see that the Little Rock Nine were invited to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama?

That's a far better place to be in history than any prom.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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