The reaction to the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, has, like many mass killings, sparked a national debate about gun control and school safety. But unlike the response to past shootings, the current conversation has been spearheaded by youth.
The survivors of the Florida high school shooting are leading a national movement among teenagers demanding gun policy reform. The Florida students have organized a school walkout next week in protest of gun violence and ease of access to firearms.
And students around the nation have organized walkouts of their own.
Natrona County High School students are among those participating in an organized walkout, though the protest’s organizers have worked to distance their walkout from the one in Florida. They’ve planned the walkout for today, and they’ve been clear in their statements that the purpose of their walkout is not to take a stand on gun control, but rather to show solidarity with the students who have been affected by the mass shootings across the nation since a disturbed man killed 26 people at Sandy Hook in 2012.
The Casper students have informed the administration and aim to conduct the protest peacefully and respectfully. And we’re glad to see that district officials plan to respect the students’ free speech rights by allowing the walkout to go forward without any threat of repercussion for participating students.
But it’s unfortunate that there are some in the community who want to condemn these students for exercising their First Amendment right.
Today’s generation of adolescents is often criticized for being disengaged, and for being more plugged into their iPhones than the politics of their country. And yet when they are spurred to action and participate in the political system, still the criticism abounds.
So it seems the teens are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Part of the problem for these students is that the division among Americans about the Second Amendment has left many lashing out at the First.
And while the goal of the Casper walkout is not to advocate for the suppression of Second Amendment rights, it has ignited passionate opposition from many, mostly from folks who view the move as anti-gun or anti-Second Amendment.
But even if people conclude the students’ views on guns are wrong, they should still respect the right of students to express their right to protest or seek change from their government. Respect for another’s right to free speech shouldn’t end at the point of ideological dissent.
In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government could not force students to salute the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Writing for the majority, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson noted the importance of protecting views that many might consider unpopular.
“But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much,” he wrote. “That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”
Jackson also warned of what happens when dissenters are punished for unpopular views.
“Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”
Casper residents should respect NCHS students’ choice to participate in the walkout today, whether or not they agree with their goals. And before they advocate for punishing dissent, they should consider the cost of enforcing political unanimity.
Because it’s not intellectual diversity that destroys Democracy, but rather imposing limitations on the freedom to it.