Once LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and other NBA superstars donned "I Can't Breathe" t-shirts on national television, expressing solidarity with protests against the deaths of Eric Garner and other unarmed black men killed by police officers, it was only a matter of time before high school hoops players copied their gesture.
But whereas the NBA has shown admirable respect, in this case, for the notion that Americans should enjoy broad latitude to make statements they believe to be of civic importance—especially when the speech in question is as minimally intrusive as a message displayed on an article of clothing before an event—high school administrators in Northern California have chosen to send a contrary message. They banned "I Can't Breathe" tees at a basketball tournament in the name of safety, a decision that almost certainly didn't make student athletes any safer.
The controversy began in Mendocino, California, where the boys and girls basketball teams decided to wear "I Can't Breathe" t-shirts before games against Fort Bragg High School. The gesture, organized by team members without the knowledge of teachers or coaches, prompted the Mendocino County Deputy Sheriff’s Association to post a rebuke on its Facebook page, according to local media.
The rebuke reportedly declared that the student protest "was very discouraging and disrespectful in our eyes," adding that a local policeman, Deputy Ricky Del Fiorentino, "recently lost his life trying to protect our citizens!" While police officers are well within their rights to form associations and publish Facebook posts, they ought to avoid illogically asserting that protests against a particular videotaped encounter between a New York City man and NYPD officers shows disrespect for Mendecino County cops, let alone a particular murdered deputy. The idea that criticizing any police officers is an attack on all police implies that typical cops are indistinguishable from the worst of their colleagues. Coherent respect for the police must encompass the ability to denounce bad cops.
The student athletes responded with a statement that suggests they're more circumspect than their antagonists. "Some of us and many of our parents personally knew Deputy Ricky Del Fiorentino," the students wrote. "He was the best example of a law enforcement officer who knew how to calm down tense situations peacefully. Our protest has nothing to do with exemplary officers like Deputy Del Fiorentino." They went on to declare that "we, the players, wanted to express our support for the people who face prejudices, racism, and police brutality daily in our country and convey our concern about these injustices to the public. We are very fortunate to live in a community in which these types of wrongs are uncommon, and respect our local law enforcement officers fully. We appreciate police officers and their difficult and sometimes dangerous job, but at the same time we condemn police brutality that does exist in our country and feel even small communities like ours should promote awareness of such crucial matters."
The notion that these students disrespected local police cannot withstand scrutiny. Yet the controversy, stoked by the oversensitive police officers, nevertheless caused administrators at Fort Bragg High to preemptively warn Mendecino High players not to repeat their gesture at a Monday hoops tournament.
"In order to protect the safety and well-being of all tournament participants it is necessary to ensure that all political statements and or protests are kept away from this tournament," Fort Bragg High School Principal Rebecca Walker stated. "We request that all participants respect our position in creating an atmosphere of political neutrality that is centered on friendly and healthy competition among young athletes. We are a small school district that simply does not have the resources to ensure the safety and well-being of our staff, students and guests at the tournament should someone get upset and choose to act out."
Some will wonder whether a public school forbidding "I Can't Breathe" tees during warmups violated the First Amendment rights of the student athletes. Law professor Eugene Volokh has a fine, detailed analysis of that surprisingly complicated question. Interested readers can read it and render their own judgment. What I want to argue is that Principal Walker made the wrong call, regardless of whether it was legal. She may well be a fine educator. The bulk of her duties are far removed from judgment calls about unusual protests at high school athletic events. But the course she chose here offered few benefits and imposed heavy costs.
The benefits were few because, predictably, the ban on "I Can't Breathe" t-shirts did not succeed in creating "an atmosphere of political neutrality" at the tournament. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reports that roughly 50 people gathered yards from the gymnasium where the tournament was held to protest in support of the student athletes. Meanwhile, the school and the protesting students have become objects of national media attention. Of course, no harm is likely to come of this. Contrary to the principal's stated position that "to protect the safety and well-being of all tournament participants it is necessary to ensure that all political statements and or protests are kept away from this tournament," students were, in fact, safe Monday despite even bigger protests than were planned.
But even before that outcome was known, it was unreasonable to prohibit high schoolers from donning controversial tees based on the logic that they couldn't otherwise be safe from a hypothetical pro-police zealot bent on hurting them (just as it would've been wrong to ban "Blue Lives Matter" tees for fear of anti-cop zealots).
Any rational assessment of risk would conclude that the controversial t-shirts almost certainly posed less danger than the car ride from Mendecino to Fort Bragg and back, or the possibility of on court injury or team fights inherent in high school athletics. And if there's any time when a small degree of danger ought to be tolerated in a liberal democracy, it's precisely when the ability to speak out on matters of civic importance is at stake. Even in America, there are risks to civic participation, albeit small ones. Should we really assimilate teenagers into democratic life by modeling an intolerance of risk so extreme that it forbids mildly controversial words in the gym of an unusually safe high school? Can a school that cowers so easily in the face of minuscule danger credibly teach students that George Washington, Martin Luther King, and the members of the U.S. armed forces set examples of bravery that ought to be followed?
Apart from the matter of safety, there is a faction of the public that would object to the protest by declaring that school functions are neither the time nor place. But it is worth resisting the increasingly widespread idea that controversial statements should always be kept out of schools, workplaces and privately-owned commercial spaces, as if a democracy's civic life is best conducted in so-called "free speech zones" where controversy is cordoned off from the masses.
That is not to say that any level of disruption should be accommodated at all times and places so long as someone feels they have words of civic importance to display. But people in positions of authority over events, workplaces or schools should, when called to exercise discretion, follow the lead of the NBA rather than Fort Bragg High School. If civic speech is relatively unlikely to present any major obstacle to conducting the business at hand, it ought to be welcomed as a show of respect for its importance as a core part of participatory government.