Last week, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported that Lenoir City High School in Tennessee denied an atheist student permission to publish an editorial accusing school administrators and faculty of violating her rights as an atheist. Krystal Myers, editor of the school newspaper, wrote that the school allows prayer at football games "via the public address system," which she claims makes it school-sponsored prayer. Among other things, she also took issue with prayer at graduation, a teacher wearing a T-shirt with a crucifix on it, and another teacher writing Bible verses on the board as part of "Quote of the Day."
The U.S. Constitution protects expression of religion, speech, and the press, but these rights aren't absolute. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to deny free speech protection to child pornography, incitement of violence, defamation, copyright infringement, and other forms of expression. The court also has ruled that a government high school can restrict speech in school-sponsored publications.
Notwithstanding Myers's allegation that Lenoir City High School violated the Establishment Clause or the school's right to restrict speech in a student newspaper, should the administrators have censored her article? Perhaps the better and less controversial option would have been to allow the editorial, along with a counterpoint editorial from a Christian student. For example, Myers wrote:
"Before I even begin, I just want to clear up some misconceptions about atheism. No, we do not worship the 'devil.' We do not believe in God, so we also do not believe in Satan. And we may be 'godless,' but that does not mean that we are without morals. I know I strive to be the best person I can be, even without religion. In fact, I have been a better person since I have rejected religion."
A counterpoint response could have been along these lines:
"Ms. Myers might not believe the God of the Bible or Satan exists, but they certainly believe she exists. Satan is at enmity with God, and the Bible teaches that we belong either to God or to Satan. Our 'morals' and good deeds fall far short of God's standards of perfection. No matter how much we strive to be the 'best person' we can be, we are sinners under God's wrath and in need of a Savior. I'll explain what that means."
By publishing two opposing articles, Lenoir City High School could not be accused of favoring one system of belief over the other. Consequently, the administrators could have created a platform for debating the claims of the Christian faith and atheism and preparing young people to defend their beliefs. Instead, Myers will continue to think she's part of a persecuted minority group.
Myers and her persecution complex remind me of myself in young adulthood, full of passion about my formerly liberal and misguided views. She's experiencing the power of boldly expressing her opinions, and the attention surrounding the censorship controversy likely will fuel her fervor.
Do you think the school should have censored the editorial?