Kentucky School Defends Student’s Right to Offend

OldhamA Kentucky high school has stood by a student’s artwork, despite a police officer’s demand that it be removed as “propaganda [that] creates…future cop haters.” Rather than taking the drawing down earlier, the drawing was removed with the rest of the exhibit as scheduled at the end of the class unit last week.

The artwork was created as part of an Honors English project at North Oldham High School in Goshen, where students read To Kill a Mockingbird and then drew their conception of social injustice in 1930, when the novel is set, and in the present day. On the 1930 side, the drawing depicts a Confederate flag and a Ku Klux Klansman holding a gun to the head of a blindfolded black man, while the contemporary side shows a U.S. flag and a white police officer holding a gun to the head of an unarmed black youth wearing a hoodie.

When parent and police officer Dave Hamblin saw the drawing hanging in his daughter’s classroom recently, he took a picture of it and posted it on Facebook, demanding that the school take it down because it created an “obvious hostile learning environment” for his daughter. Although Hamblin had not communicated his concerns directly to school administrators, the post quickly spread on social media and made its way into news reports.

Asked for comment by local TV station WDRB, Oldham County Schools spokesperson Tracy Green staunchly defended the student’s free expression rights:

When discussing social injustice, people will likely be offended by some topic. The drawing is a student’s artistic representation based on the lens through which the student viewed that issue and the student has a First Amendment right to share that opinion.

In his Facebook post, Hamblin claimed that “there’s propaganda and there’s the First Amendment. They’re two different things, especially in a government-run classroom.” But of course, the First Amendment is precisely the reason why student-created artworks from all viewpoints are protected from the censorship that Hamblin requested. Green also expressed appreciation for the work of Hamblin and other officers, but made clear that no outside influence would curtail the learning process:

We support what they do every day and we’re so thankful for everything they do to keep our students safe, but we also hope that they understand the dialogue that we’re trying to have in the classroom to prepare these kids for the world outside of school.

All of the drawings from the To Kill a Mockingbird project were taken down on Friday, at the end of the unit as scheduled. Kudos to Oldham County Schools for not taking the easy way out!

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CBLDF Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.