In Our Words: World Hijab Day opens dialogue for free speech issues

Teachers’ speech is limited when they are on a public school campus. As agents of the state, they are not permitted to make any political statements because they might affect the opinions of their students. And that’s as it should be.

But it is important to make the distinction between teaching politics, teaching about different cultures and promoting their own beliefs. Teachers should not be allowed to impose their political opinions on their students while they are teaching. The same thing goes for religion. But the answer to this complicated idea that political and religious ideals should not be promoted is not the same thing as the idea that they should be taboo. Religion and politics are two major factors that shape our world, and the idea that those two things cannot be talked about and learned in a classroom setting should scare you.

Recently, science teacher Angela Feldbush and a handful of other teachers agreed to participate in World Hijab Day after a request came from a student who wanted to spread awareness of what it feels like to wear a hijab and to raise awareness of the discrimination that women face when wearing them. But when some parents heard that teachers were wearing hijabs, they complained to the school that the teachers were trying to make a political statement.

Parent complaints about this statement most likely came from the recent travel ban that President Donald Trump ordered, prohibiting any immigrants or refugees from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen from coming into the United States for 90 days. The legality of this ban is debatable. Many see it as an unconstitutional ban on Muslims and discrimination based on religion while other view saying the ban as a way to combat terror and keep our country safe.

But no matter what your stance is on Trump’s immigration ban, free speech in public schools must be protected. The limits that exist are reasonable, but speech, especially concerning issues that are promoting understanding and tolerance, should not be over monitored.

When contacted by “The Roar staff,” Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that as long as the hijabs were not a distraction, the teacher’s speech is constitutionally protected.

“I don’t think that just the silent act of wearing a hijab could be punishable any more than wearing a crucifix necklace or a yarmulke could be punishable,” LoMonte said. “If they made statements taking sides on a disputed political issue to students during class, then that’s speech the school can regulate.”

But that’s not what happened. Wearing hijabs was not intended to be a political statement but instead was about trying to promote understanding and tolerance. And that should not be punished. We are lucky to have a supportive administration at West Shore. Principal Rick Fleming spoke to Feldbush and the other teachers about the issue when the parents complained, but when Feldbush explained that they had no political motive, he decided to not reprimand the teachers. We hope that teachers, parents and students can continue to work together to promote understanding and tolerance and that important issues can be discussed for the purpose of learning at all school campuses.