Events reported in the recent news story, “Wheatley grad’s speech met with backlash from administrators, parents” (June 24, 2021), raise important questions about freedom of expression in our schools and society.
Once again some school administrators and parents have decided that a student can speak freely, but only if some vocal members of her audience aren’t offended! In this case, Huda Ayaz, was one of three honor students chosen to give graduation speeches at Wheatley High School in Williston, L.I. I’d remind these administrators and parents that the U.S. Supreme Court in Tinker vs. Des Moines ruled that “students do not shed their constitutional rights to free speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate.” https://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/facts-and-case-summary-tinker-v-des-moines
Nevertheless, the principal felt he needed to “apologize that such a wonderful ceremony became marred for many people in attendance due to those remarks.” And, he added, “We will take what happened today and strive to make further sure our students understand the lessons we seek to teach above regarding time, place openness and appropriateness.”
Huda Ayaz called on her class to “speak for those who don’t have a voice and stand up for any injustice you see.” She added, “Educate yourself about international dilemmas, including the ethnic cleansings of Palestinians and Uighur Muslims. Families are continuously torn apart, and real human lives are being lost but ignored.”
Those were the words the principal believed required his apology, three sentences of a six-minute speech entitled “Speak” that offended some in the audience.
I’m certain everyone in attendance would agree we should speak for the voiceless and call out injustice; however, this student had the temerity to speak of the decades-long removal, displacement and illegal treatment of Palestinians and Uighurs. And when did speaking for any of the voiceless or calling out any injustice become controversial? Clearly some in the audience only approve of speaking out for some of the voiceless, but not for others. What hypocrisy!
Moreover, to some of these parents, Huda Ayaz’s comments were fighting words. How else to explain catcalls of “go back to Pakistan” or that an incensed, offended parent yelled, made gestures and had to be escorted out? And, according to reports, some even confronted the student after the ceremony.
What were these parents thinking? Perhaps when they’ve cooled down, they might consider that how we adults behave toward others, especially those with whose views we disagree or even despise, teaches our children how they should treat others. The actions of these “adults” speak louder than all the oft-cited moral virtues that all humans deserve freedom, dignity, fairness, kindness and respect—the noble values we say we espouse. Which begs the question: What values do these parents want to instill in their children and what are their actions teaching them?
I’ve since read that the principal later asserted that he believes a student has a right to say uncomfortable, unpopular words; nonetheless, the school superintendent avers that she and the principal were “in conversation regarding the necessary steps that must be taken to prevent such an upsetting occurrence ever happening again.”
It is clear these administrators yielded to pressure and played it safe rather than defending the student’s right to speak what to some were unpopular words. They and others like them say they want students who question and think critically, but their words are only hollow, mouthed platitudes if when someone deviates from the safe and expected and makes some uncomfortable, they cave when the pressure is on to ignorant slurs and invective. What a mockery of education and freedom!
When Huda Ayaz asked her classmates to speak out and said “to many silence is safety,” she might have been speaking of these school administrators and some parents who find politically challenging, if uncomfortable speech unacceptable.
Former teacher, member of Jewish Voice for Peace