Last week, a local high school student-athlete sparked a social media firestorm with a pair of posts containing disparaging comments toward liberals, gays and Alaska Natives, and a racist post regarding outgoing President Barack Obama.
School administrators responded promptly to the posts as the district has policies in place regarding student conduct as it pertains to the school environment as well as for students involved in extracurricular activities, through which they are representing both their school and their community.
In a nutshell, students have a right to express their opinions, but it comes with the responsibility to do so in a respectful manner. According to school district policy, “schools shall not tolerate any comments or gestures which are vulgar or obscene or which denigrate others on account of gender, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, handicap, disadvantage or any other real or perceived differences.”
If only we could all live by those guidelines.
The social media posts that set off the uproar certainly were not the only ones like that to have been posted to social media. We don’t know if the student truly believes the words he posted, or if he was just posting for shock value, but we do know that over the past year, the sense of public decency and decorum has eroded dramatically. Ironically, the posts came just a few days after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when we remember the man who asked us to judge others by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, and a day before nationwide Women’s March protests, which in part were rallies against marginalizing behavior.
So, where do we go from here? What this recent controversy demonstrates is that free speech comes with responsibilities, and there can be consequences when those responsibilities are disregarded. It also shows the need for good mentors — parents, teachers, coaches — who can demonstrate what a constructive dialogue looks like. Now more than ever, we need to be able to have good conversations about our visions for the future of our communities. We need to be able to exchange ideas and debate policies from varying pints of view.
But we need to have those discussions in a way that draws our diverse community together, rather than drives individuals out.