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As young conservatives, we frequently lament the repression of free speech on public college campuses. However, it is a point not often considered that private schools and universities may be just as restrictive, if not more so. This past year, I attempted to found a chapter of Young Americans for Freedom at my private, Christian high school. It was rejected on the premise that it would not be fair to the liberal-leaning students.
As a proud, card-carrying conservative, I could think of no higher honor than to share the values of conservatism with my fellow classmates. Therefore, like any Future Female Leader would do, I buckled down and did my research. Young America’s Foundation, YAF for short, promises to “bring together students to advocate for the ideas of limited government, individual freedom, free enterprise, traditional values and a strong national defense. YAF chapters can provide a visible presence for the Conservative Movement, energize other students, and encourage them to speak out.” Sounds perfect, right?
Yet, before I could pitch this idea to my principal, I carefully collaborated with my government teacher. She eagerly agreed to sponsor the club and even helped me to organize my presentation. The fateful day soon arrived. I respectfully requested a meeting with our Head of School. Since our Head of School is practically the most reasonable man alive, I truly expected this meeting to be more of a formality. However, I soon saw the error in this line of thinking. After I finished my presentation, he told me how much he personally supported what I was trying to do. He still could not permit this club. From his years of experience, he predicted that some of our school’s left-leaning students would want to start their own club. Then, there were also the parents to worry about. In the past, he has had to deal with many angry adults who were upset about conservative, Christian principles being “forced” down their children’s throats.
Looking back on his decision, I should not have been surprised. This was not the first time our free speech had been stifled in order to avoid offending anyone. A few months ago, as the Confederate monument debate was raging, one of our history teachers attempted to model civil discourse in a controlled environment. He split the class into teams. He instructed each side to declare whether they supported or opposed tearing down these statues. Then, he challenged the students to see things from a different perspective by arguing the opposing viewpoint. The following day, our principal received several complaints from those who could not tolerate another viewpoint even being considered. Predictably, he was berated for the institution’s apparent racism and bigotry. After all, since some of the students felt uncomfortable and offended, their objections signaled the end of the discussion.
This brings me to my larger concern, the death of free, civil discourse in America. What is the point of a private school if its students are not free to discuss the most vital and, yes, even controversial, issues of the day in what should be a sheltered and safe environment? If these same students and parents believe that every time they feel slightly offended by something, they are completely in the right, and the discussion should be immediately shut down, how will we ever learn what it is to respectfully debate and disagree with those around us?
Eventually, I did get my own club, a non-offensive, “Government Club”, which I love dearly, but that isn’t the point. I know that in any public high school in the city, the administration would be required to allow a similar conservative club, as long as it had the right backing and membership. Since public schools are obliged to appear nonpartisan, students at public schools are enabled to express themselves. They are able to stand up for their convictions through walk-outs, protests, and public forums. This would be much more difficult for me and my classmates. After all, non-government funded schools must keep the parents and students satisfied in order to maintain enrollment levels and prevent them from simply choosing another school. Obviously, this makes any kind of protest movement much more complicated. Therefore, I truly am not blaming my school or any of the people who work there. I love my school dearly. Truthfully, I can understand the reasons why my conservative club might not be a good fit for the school. This knowledge does not keep me from mourning the loss of what might have been. Instead, I blame the culture. We have a culture where we are forced to be polite in everything we do and where the chief goal is to avoid offending anyone at all costs, even though the truth is often inherently offensive.
Rather, I leave my readers with a challenge penned by long-time Republican senator Margaret Chase Smith,
“Moral cowardice that keeps us from speaking our minds is as dangerous to this country as irresponsible talk. The right way is not always the popular and easy way. Standing for right when it is unpopular is a true test of moral character.”