Tshirts And Mass Bullying

Someone has made tshirts bearing the Cranston prayer and is selling them to raise money to preserve the banner.  To the creator’s credit, he has said…

The effort and responsibility of the page is to raise funds through donations to pay for the preservation of the “Prayer Banner.” All monies raised will be spent for this purpose only. They will not be spent on legal fees, or expenses, related to the pending lawsuit and/or appeal if the School Committee takes this route.

Ok fine.  I have no problem with that.  Preserve the prayer.  Hang it in your house, wear it as a bathrobe, I could honestly give less than a shit so long as it’s not being hung in a government building.  Of course, there’s no disdain for the bullies or threats, but at least they’re not actively trying to subvert the Constitution.

There is a fun poll on the facebook page he created though.  They want people’s opinions.  I read that and I think to myself, “I know some people!”

Anyway, here’s why I mention it.

Ahlquist said she was aware of rumors circulating that some students were planning to wear T-shirts emblazoned with the school prayer designed by a school alumnus. Others, she said, have threatened to harass or beat her up when she returns.

I have no problem with students wearing those shirts.  It’s their right, they are not agents of the government.  I just hope they don’t think for a second it’s going to make their school breaking the law ok or that it will result in a holiday TV special ending where a judge says, “Damn, look at all those shirts…you know, the Constitution is just a piece of paper anyway…”

However, the issue comes if they all elect to wear them on the same day.  Last year at a Northern California high school, a large group of the students banded together and decided to wear shirts with American flags as a dig on the Hispanic students/immigrants.  The administration sent all participating students home.  The students sued, the school won.  The school won for a very simple reason: that kind of thing constitutes bullying, and schools should oppose bullying.

When I was told about the possibility of students all wearing these shirts on the same day I initially said there was nothing wrong with it.  After all, nobody wants to stop anybody from praying (we may criticize them for holding foolish beliefs) or from expressing themselves individually – we care about the government endorsing religion, which is illegal.  I still don’t care if the students wear the shirts individually, but I’ve changed my mind about how the administration should react to a mass event like that.  They should stop it.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • http://carlsagansdanceparty.wordpress.com Steven Olsen

    Not sure I agree. This seems to fall under free expression. As long as they aren’t banding together to hurl insults and clenched fists at Jessica, stating their position seems completely fine.

  • eric

    Seems a bit iffy. There should be room for students to perform organized/coordinated speech for a cause, heck even against a cause, so long as the intent is not specifically to bully another person or persons.

    Prevent group-t-shirt-wearing in favor of this poster because it might also be construed as bullying Ahlquist, and you may find the Day of Silence is next on the chopping block because it might be construed as bullying John Doe.

    I suspect that one could come up with reams of evidence that the intent of this particular mass protest is bullying. And so prevent it. But lets not throw any babies out with the bathwater.

  • Kassie

    First off, I’d like to say that I strongly disagree with the California court’s ruling that the school was opposing bullying by sending the students home wearing American flags on their shirts. I understand the sentiment behind it, but I believe that the courts made a grave mistake by legislating the permission of schools to deem what does and does not constitute “bullying” by denying the freedom of expression of the students.

    Had the shirts said “This is America; if you weren’t born here, get out,” then we might be talking about bullying as a result of the direct implication and harassment involved with the pointedness of the content. Just wearing American flags though… I can’t justify that as wrong. If the people wearing those flag t-shirts said mean/harassing/threatening things to non-American/immigrant-American students, then those students should have been punished individually as a result of their personal actions, not as a result of the perceived or real intent behind the American flag shirts they were wearing.

    Taking that a step further, I think that your second-guessing whether or not the students should be able to wear the prayer shirts on the same day is a result of poor skepticism and lazy logic. Just because there is a legal precedent which supports your personal views in this situation does not make it right to support that precedent; it makes your argument about as sound as a slave-owner arguing that there was legal precedent in the 1800′s allowing slavery. Not acceptable.

    If the students all want to wear their shirts on the same day, expressing that prayer without the support or assistance of the public school’s funds, that’s fine. If they say something threatening or intimidating to Jessica, regardless of what they’re wearing, that’s NOT fine. If their shirt is “edited” to have the prayer as well as a threatening statement on it, that is not fine. But the students should have every right to wear whatever shirt they want, regardless of the controversy involved with its content, so long as it does not compromise the safety and effectiveness of the learning environment for the students.

    And as another point, somewhat rhetorically, does that mean that when Fred Phelps and his minions arrived at my high school, we should not have been allowed to wear our Gay/Straight Alliance shirts to show solidarity with one another because we were “bullying” the students who supported Westboro and their ideas/beliefs?

  • Kevin Pettay

    A school is a place of learning. Anything that detracts from that, should be assessed.

  • neatospiderplant

    I think I view their t-shirts the way the Christians should view removal of the prayer banner: I don’t like it, but as far as I can tell, it seems in line with the law.

    I do hope they don’t use it to further bully Jessica, but I think it would be a slippery slope to ban the tshirts just because they MIGHT be used to bully.

    I know I’m probably giving too much credit, but if the students wear the shirts expecting Jessica to complain, and she doesn’t (as long as they are only wearing them quietly and not accompanying them with cruel remarks), they might wonder why she isn’t offended and it might be a way to show them its not the prayer in itself, but the prayer attached to a government building instead of an individual that’s the problem.

  • Adam Steele

    It’s not necessarily that it would be bullying. Students don’t have complete free speech while at school, just as you don’t have complete free speech while at work. At neither place can you stand in the middle of the hall and shout, even if it’s just yelling nothing like “AAAAAAAAAAA” because it is a disruption. Causing a disruption is grounds for being told to leave. Whether what the students are actually doing is a disruption or not can be called into question, like many schools have rules saying you can’t have facial piercings or multi-colored hair. Most students don’t give two shits about that kind of stuff anymore. They would see it, say “huh, cool” and go about their day. It’s teachers who think that this would be a disruption. The school has to decide whether this would constitute a disruption to the normal day. I think it would.

  • Drakk

    Maybe I’m reading into it too much, but the t shirt design clearly has “Heavenly Father” and “Amen” in the largest typeface, I would say to the point that it dominates the entire text of the shirt.

    If it’s any indication of what exactly they consider important about the prayer, well, it’s a shot in the foot for them. It makes it clearly religiously charged, not historically. It shows that they’re not upset about losing the history, they’re upset about losing the religion. I do hope they’re conscious of this and refrain from using “historical” based arguments when the real motivation behind their actions is clearly on display.

    …Yeah, not likely.

  • F

    @ Kassie

    What, exactly, do you think the Live Oak students were saying by wearing the shirts?

  • http://justdfacsmaam.wordpress.com MarkNS

    I disagree. They all want to wear their prayer. So what? I don’t really get how that is bullying Jessica. She can just snicker quietly to herself.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty

    T-shirt =/= bullying

    Seriously, do you WANT to restrict students’ First Amendment rights?

  • julian

    I’m torn on this. On one hand this is clearly protected Free Speech. On the other, it’s obvious othering high school bully technique.

  • LeftSidePositive

    I say that as long as the shirts have no overtly threatening language, they should be okay. I agree with the free speech concerns raised by many of the commenters above. Of course, the school should keep a lookout for any threatening actions or statements made by the students wearing those shirts, and I would strongly recommend the teachers hold classroom discussions about why a mass demonstration against a student standing up for religious freedom is legal, but totally repugnant (or at least I would recommend that the teachers do that if I had any trust in them to actually have decent values in this case).

    I think we should state very clearly that any student thinking of wearing this prayer as a means of mocking Jessica or opposing the separation of church and state is a total douchebag. Truly, I think the Right to Douchebaggery is inherent in our Constitution and essential to our freedoms, so all we can or should do is use our own freedom of expression to identify the douchebaggery as such.

  • San Ban

    I have to disagree with you on this, JT. I think your original, liberal response was the right one. Jessica might feel offended by the free speech of these students, but it IS still just that, speech, and I can’t see how it will harm her, or the school. Kids are there to learn, and one of the things they’re learning is how to live, work and thrive alongside others who disagree with them. The administration should ignore it, and so should Jessica. Better still, she could come up with her own, creative way to show she supports free speech!

    If anyone threatens or harasses Jessica when she returns to school, that should be dealt with.

  • articulett

    I think they should be allowed to wear their silly t-shirts.

    And maybe Jessica can wear one that says “evil little thing” if she wanted (and her supporters can as well.) Or she can wear a FSM shirt. Or ignore the whole thing all together.

    The prayers shirts are rather loud and ugly and not weather appropriate for this time of year. I would think it would be embarrassing to wear them– very uncool. I can only see the kids wearing them a couple of times. I look at it this way– it will let Jessica and others know who the religious freaks are– law enforcement officers will know who to look at if there are threats to Jessica; they can just look for the goons in the silly prayer shirts.

    Hey, maybe some of these self-righteous folks will READ the prayer on each other’s chest and start acting like the decent human beings they’ve been praying to be! It might give them an incentive to prove that prayer does something useful. I look at it as a way of letting them be dicks without actually harming anyone. They can feel like they’ve rebelled and made whatever point it is they imagine they are making or that they’ve stuck up for god– and Jessica can enjoy the spectacle. I doubt any of those kids even cared about that damn prayer before Jessica asked to have it removed.

  • http://timetolisten.blogspot.com Kassiane

    I want an Evil Little Thing shirt. I would buy one for every day of the week if they came in different colors, especially if the proceeds went to Jessica’s scholarship fund.

  • crissakentavr

    I would support their right to even put it in the library; as long as it is stored and not part of the school’s design and decoration. Bibles and historical items should be kept there, for reference.

    Don’t know if I believe their promise, though.

  • crissakentavr

    PS, t-shirts can be bullying. Anything can be turned into a weapon by a bully or gang of thugs. Look at the flag-wearing racists who started fights in a silicon valley school, pretending that their clothes – because they were ‘patriotic’ could not be a gang-sign.

    • articulett

      At a public school in my area, high school kids wore t-shirts with different letters on them. They,then lined up to spell out different offensive things which they took pictures of and then put on their Facebook page. Because the school was in the picture (and rude things were possibly said about the principal), the students were disciplined by not being allowed to wear any more costumes or spirit day type stuff for the rest of the year.

  • N. Nescio

    “Additionally, CustomInk.com has the sole discretion to reject any order that it considers libelous, defamatory, obscene, profane (according to standards established by the FCC), portraying irresponsible use of alcohol or other substances, advocating persecution based on gender, age, race, disability or national origin, containing explicit sexual content or is otherwise inappropriate for CustomInk.com production.”

    Interesting how they left out a restriction on advocating persecution based on religion or sexual orientation.

  • prochoice

    If a lot of students wear one and the same message, it is o.k.
    Probably worth a study, just like those on expensive clothing versus school uniforms and their effects on learning.

    Quite clear: No issue for the penal law.

    BUT here there is the case of many students, who did not say anything against a school “tradition” breaking the constitution, and ONE outstanding student who sued and won.

    Therefore the small group who WANT this ritual of belief, because they adhere to the religion, CAN easily release the noncommitted´s feelings against the one, from “I envy her, but I did not have the guts” to “Want to go through school a.s.a.p. and without disturbance” to “Whatever they tell in school, all nonbelievers of my speciality rot in hell forever, and I do always fear that I cannot match the commandments!” and the mix of that emotions
    It has to be doused for a good while,
    until the gang effect wears off.

    Therefore for weeks, if not months, it is a problem of bullying and worse, and will only over time become a speech issue again.

    I had a lot of such experience at school, and have followed news and research about it for my whole life.
    People who do not have PTSD tend to underestimate the risk of violence; I do not like to say our experience has high predictive value for the same situation, but that is fact.

  • David Hart

    I think Ms Ahlquist should have a t-shirt with the First Amendment printed on it, that she can keep in her bag and change into if anyone else shows up wearing the prayer banner. I’ll happily chip in.

  • dfl42

    Every time I see comment threads like this, I’m proud to be an atheist. I don’t know what I think about the shirts. It’s a complicated, difficult issue. And look at us, guys, we’re fucking treating it that way, and having a reasoned discussion. No toeing some sort of party line bullshit, no oversimplification, no vilification of the people who disagree. Just talk.

    You go, atheism.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      Agreed 100%.

  • http://darkmattereffect.tumblr.com Dark Matter

    I don’t give a damn what they do with that rag, as long as it isn’t being displayed by public employees on public property, and what the students want to wear is their own business. Generally speaking, as long as it doesn’t contain hate speech or profanity, then it won’t violate the school dress code, and you can’t create new rules for something like this – especially since there have undoubtedly been students wearing shirts with religious messaging all year. Best just to ignore them.

  • Loud

    Don’t try commenting on that Facebook page, if you aren’t towing the party line, your comment will just get deleted!

  • phil zombi

    I think the mass-t-shirt-wearing display (apart from being silly) only demonstrates that the majority can be wrong. It’s obvious by now that many students wanted to keep the prayer banner. Having them self-identify at school only reiterates that Jessica is outnumbered. I am pretty sure we knew that already.

  • Uncle Glenny

    At customink.com:

    We believe T-shirts Unite!™

    The tribe, perhaps.

  • arakasi

    I think that in this case, the wearing of the t-shirt by the students should not be considered bullying (though I would keep a closer eye on the kids wearing them as they interact with Ms. Ahlquist). If the shirts had something that specifically called her out, then it would tip over the balance to bullying. Also, if a teacher were to wear one of the shirts, then it would come in conflict with the same principle that is forcing the removal of the mural.

    Really, as long as no one confronts Ms. Ahlquist about it, then the proper response should be “meh”. From what I’ve seen of her so far, she doesn’t appear to be easily intimidated by someone wearing a shirt. In a couple of days, only the hardcore dweebs will still be wearing them.

    I would bet that this plan was hatched by someone who believes the narrative that Ms. Ahlquist was somehow offended by the existance of the prayer, and that seeing a hundred copies of it would somehow drive her into a panic. The worst comeback for jerks like that is to have their clever blow be completely ignored

  • articulett

    If they complain about the prayer being taken down, Jessica can smile and point out that they can wear their t-shirts whenever they miss their prayer and no laws need to be broken!

    I would hope, though, that no teachers wear the prayer shirt to school.

    I would like a t-shirt with the first half of the establishment clause myself.

  • freemage

    I’m thinking through this.

    Back in the day, my high school was very aggressive about opposing gangs–any clothing or even speech that might represent gang membership was rather ruthlessly squashed, and students suspended or expelled for even mild violations.

    Now, true–these were gangs that advocated criminal activity.

    But then, so’s this group. That’s the whole point–the banner was blatantly illegal, and these mini-thugs are advocating that the law should be broken by returning the banner. So these shirts are, functionally, gang colors.

    Alas, I don’t think the administration will go that route. What would be preferable, though, would be to pull in the ringleaders (the admin always knows who the ringleaders are) and inform them that yes, they can wear the shirts. However, if even one of the students wearing the shirts says or does anything to threaten Jessica in any way, shape or form, they’re getting stuck on in-school suspension for the rest of the year, and will thus be held back a grade.

  • captainahags

    The original precedent is interesting, but I’m not so sure it’s applicable here. As I read the California case, it seemed pretty clear that part of the reason for the banning of the flag shirts was that there had been disruptive incidents in the past, and that on those grounds the shirts could be banned-the tacit message of the flag shirts was that students of Hispanic origin were not welcome. In this case, there’s no history of disruption, so the school district will have to deal with any incidents of harassment on an individual basis. If it becomes a “everyone wear these shirts and harass Jessica again next year” day, then I think there would be more legitimate grounds on which to prevent en masse shirt wearing.

  • eric

    Chris @17: PS, t-shirts can be bullying.

    Sure. And shooting somone can be murder…or it can be self-defense. Context and motivation matter. That’s the point – we shouldn’t make a categorical rejection of the practice based on one of the things it can be used for.

    I would not want our courts deciding that (student) group protests are bullying simply because someone can be or feels bullied. That gives a heckler’s veto to anyone to prevent any good speech too. I would like our courts to generally allow group protests – like t-shirt wearing – and decide to prevent in those instances where there is independent evidence that it done with the intention of bullying, or if the primary effect is bullying rather than opinion-expressing.

  • isilzhaveni

    If the school has rules about the wearing of gang colors and symbols then I’d think those t-shirts would fall into that category since they are serving to identify and band together a group of people. A group of people who obviously condone threats and violence against others who are not members of their gang.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=782440911 Lawrence

    There’d be a sweet symmetry if Jessica were to wear an ‘Evil little thing’ shirt. Her best bet is probably to just ignore the whole thing, or perhaps get herself a version of the banner shirt but with the religious invocations removed from the beginning and end.