FREE SPEECH — A few weeks ago a California mother complained online that her public school first grader had been disciplined by his teacher for using the phrase, "What the –?"  No third word after the dash, mind you.  Just "What the –?" The mother told the teacher that the only word her son knew to complete the interjection was "heck."  Never mind, said the teacher; other pupils felt that he was hinting at a vulgar third word, and were uncomfortable, and complained.  He would have to stop.

The mother was far more patient than many of us would have been.  She tried sweet reason.

I responded with a willingness to talk to my son about using less
offensive alternatives to express himself while he was in the classroom.
I also told her that I didn't feel it was my son's or our
responsibility to ensure the comfort of others, as this statement is not
directed at anyone personally, is not causing a disruption to the
classroom and I do not find the phrase or word hurtful or offensive. I
also indicated that I believed his freedom of speech rights were being
tread upon.

I looked up the school rules and the closest thing that applies is:

Comments that insult or degrade a person because of his/her actual or
perceived race, ethnic background, national origin, physical appearance,
financial status, religion, age, sex, gender, gender identity,
physical disability, mental disability, sexual orientation, family
structure or association with a person or group with one or more of
these actual or perceived characteristics.

I also looked up the definition of heck:



(used as a mild expression of annoyance, rejection, disgust, etc.): What
the heck do you care?



something remarkable of its kind (usually used in the phrase heck of a
): That was a heck of an impressive speech. Have one heck of a good



as heck (used as a mild intensifier): I say he's guilty as heck.

Use heck in a Sentence


1850–55; euphemistic alter. of hell

I personally don't see anything wrong with these definitions, but can
understand that it might bother other people because they're likely to
interpret the definition as alternate to the word "hell". So even though
I disagree that my son should have to alter his choice of expression,
for the sake of "getting along", I've talked to him and given him
alternatives to use, like "what in the world", "what on earth" or
"what's going on?".

Good question: What's going on?  For that matter, what's going on when, on Cinco de Mayo, a Morgan Hill, California high school vice principal orders a handful of students wearing American flag T-shirts to turn them inside out or go home—to avoid causing friction with those celebrating a Mexican independence holiday—but the inevitable red-meat reports of his act cause a number of Latino students to walk out in protest the next day anyway?

There appear to be two deficits in both cases.  One, a deficit of common sense on the part of the teacher and the vice principal.  The teacher's position is almost comically stupid:  "No, but you were thinking it!"  The second might have been defensible at some level if wearing Old Glory had led to fights or other disturbances at the school in the past.  But then the day when a school discovers from experience that it's not safe to wear the Stars and Stripes on a public school campus—even as a needle to those thought to be paying greater allegiance to another nation's flag—that should be the day that the school starts educating youngsters on all sides to get used to annoying symbols, gestures, celebrations . . . in short, to take 10 deep breaths and learn to live with speech that challenges your loyalties and convictions. It's the static of freedom.

But the more serious deficit is one of training.  The first grader's mother looked to the rules—why didn't the teacher?  A look at well-presented training materials would have taught both the teacher and the vice principal that nowhere in the United States are public schools permitted to silence students' non-obscene, non-vulgar expression because someone in authority reads it with a dirty mind, or to silence their political expression because others may find it irritating or offensive. 

In California the standards are even more protective; the Education Code allows censorship of student expression—including the wearing of "insignia"—on campus only if it "so incites students as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises, or the violation of lawful school regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school." (Emphasis added).

The school principal and district administration left the vice principal dangling in the wind after news reports of the incident led to widespread outrage.  If anything, they should have apologized for their own failure to train staff adequately about the state's high barriers—higher than the First Amendment—of straining to keep the peace by coming down on one side of a political conflict.