Promoting Intolerance in Schools

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The Washington Post reported the other day on a flier that was recently sent home with many high school students’ report cards in Montgomery County, Maryland:

Some Montgomery County high schools passed out fliers this week from an organization that contends gays can become heterosexual through therapy, and the schools say they cannot prevent the use of their distribution system by such groups.

The fliers, from the group Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, were distributed Thursday alongside report cards by teachers at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac. The group says it delivered them to about half the county’s high schools this week and plans to do the same at the remaining high schools at the end of the school year.

The board of education claims that, under the terms of a settlement agreement from a 2006 lawsuit, it is required to distribute any literature that is not deemed hate speech and that is provided by a registered nonprofit organization.

Though this may not rise to the level of hate speech in the sense of being a slur or threat, it certainly seems inconsistent with the board of education’s  nondiscrimination policy, which “affirm[s] the Board of Education’s commitment to maintaining an environment where all students and staff members conduct themselves in a manner built on mutual respect.” Telling straight high school students that their lesbian and gay peers could be straight if they just tried hard enough will in no way build mutual respect in the school system. If anything, it contributes to an environment in which you will encounter hate speech and acts of violence targeted at students who just seem not to be trying hard enough to toe the heterosexual line.

It also raises some interesting questions about double standards. Do you think that the school system would distribute a flier with its report cards from a nonprofit that said that we could achieve world peace if only everyone embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior? That certainly isn’t a slur or a threat either, but, like the flier from the ex-gay group, it would contribute to an atmosphere of intolerance–in this case, of religious minorities. Or, would the school distribute a flier from a nonprofit that flatly contradicts another area of the curriculum–say, a flier from a nonprofit organization that advocated the view that the Earth is flat or that espoused creationism? Neither of these messages are hate speech, but they would run counter to the educational mission of the school, just as the ex-gay group’s flier apparently runs counter to the school’s health law curriculum.

Also, the school’s standards for distributing materials seem unduly lax. Any organization with 501(c)(3) status or a notarized letter on the organization’s letterhead stating that it is a nonprofit can get access to this distribution system. The school system seems to be taking 501(c)(3) status as some type of government imprimatur of an organization’s message. This is a mistake. And the fact that an organization is a nonprofit (or says that it is a nonprofit) says nothing about the appropriateness or trustworthiness of its message–all it means is that the organization is not a commercial enterprise. These two criteria for giving unfettered access to young minds seem completely misguided. A school is an educational institution. All of these organizations certainly have the First Amendment right to espouse their views, but does that mean that they should have the right to disseminate those views through the school system? Shouldn’t the messages that a school sends out to its students–even with a disclaimer–be in keeping with its educational mission?

-Tony Infanti

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