We have a quick update on Courtni Webb, the San Francisco high school student who was suspended from school last month after a teacher found a poem that mentioned the Newtown shootings in her private notebook. According to a blog post from the National Coalition Against Censorship, Courtni’s suspension was lifted yesterday and she has been allowed to return to class at Life Learning Academy, a public charter school.
The school’s original overreaction apparently stemmed from its laudable curriculum of nonviolence, but the expectation that students should never have or express thoughts of anger or other negative emotions is an egregious misapplication of nonviolent theory. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., the two titans of that philosophy, both agreed that anger is natural and even necessary to bring about change in society. In his 1929 autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi wrote: “I have learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world.”
And in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King warned:
If…repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: ‘Get rid of your discontent.’ Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.
Likewise, Courtni Webb’s poem was simply a creative outlet that allowed her to deal with her turbulent feelings in a healthy fashion. It’s a victory for free speech that Life Learning Academy reconsidered its stance on student expression.
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Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.