Melissa Harris-Perry: It might be hard to tell, but you're listening to the 1983 holiday classic, A Christmas Story. In this scene, Ralphie's dad is in the basement doing battle with the perpetually troublesome boiler. Mom, Ralphie, and little brother, Randy, bear witness to the old man's frustration as they listen through the vent.
Ralphie: In the heat of battle, my father wove a tapestry of obscenity that as far as we know, is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The family's shocked silence in the face of the old man's profanity is comedy gold. Later in the movie, young Ralphie accidentally lets slip an F-bomb and ends up biting on a bar of soap.
Ralphie's Mom: Where did you hear that word?
Adult Ralphie: Now, I had heard that word at least 10 times a day from my old man. My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Poor Ralphie. I mean, he's just a kid trying to navigate childhood and he gets caught up in the absurdity of Middle American pearl-clutching decency norms.
Brandy Levy: I was angry and I made a post on Snap. I said-- it was, "F-school, F-cheer, F-softball, F-everything."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now you're listening to Brandy Levy. She's speaking in an interview last month with Good Morning America. Brandy is a high school student who just secured a significant Supreme Court victory on Wednesday. When Brandy was in the ninth grade, she tried out for the varsity cheer squad. When she learned she didn't make the team, she was understandably upset. Her response was not unlike Ralphie's-- profane. She took to social media to express her frustration.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Not exactly a tapestry of profanity, but her irritation is unmistakable. The Snapchat post became a literal federal case after a classmate shared it with a school official and the school then suspended Brandy from cheering in the upcoming year. Brandy and her parents fought the suspension unsuccessfully and ended up in court, claiming the school had denied Brandy's First Amendment rights. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court agreed in an eight-to-one decision that limits the ability of schools to constrain students' speech when it happens off-campus.
Additionally, the majority decision made this point. "The vulgarity in the posts encompass a message of criticism. The school has presented no evidence of any general effort to prevent students from using vulgarity outside the classroom." And there it is, the core issue. See, no one thinks the school was combing the internet looking for kids using bad words. No, Brandy was told to bite on the soap of cheer suspension because she cursed at the school. Wednesday's court decision is explicit that this type of authority-defined vulgarity is the express purpose of the First Amendment.
As an unrepentant pottymouth who has publicly defied authority more than a few times, I cheered the vindication of the cursing cheerleader. At the same time, I remain uneasy, knowing how often race, gender, and dominant cultural norms have worked to protect the rights of some Americans while restricting those same rights in others. Last week, I had a conversation here on The Takeaway with Professor Carol Anderson about the book, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America. She said this.
Professor Carol Anderson: What we see historically is that that so-called right to self-defense does not include Black people.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It got me thinking about the First Amendment. What if the student in question is not a 14-year-old white girl in Pennsylvania, but a 17-year-old Black boy in Mississippi? What if he wasn't disappointed about not making varsity, but he was enraged because fellow students were allegedly being sexually harassed by school coaches? What if he made an obscene rap song instead of a profane Snapchat post? Would this kid have the protection of the First Amendment? It's not just a hypothetical question. It's a 2015 case, Bell versus Itawamba County Schools. Back in 2015, the Supreme Court would not even hear Mr. Bell's case.
Young people speak to be heard. This week, the Court affirmed their right to speak, even when it offends the sensibilities of adults. Let's listen in this space to be sure we can hear all of our young people speaking.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Up next, we're talking about tornadoes.
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