All’s well that ends well? Maybe.
When the high school in Epping, New Hampshire organized their America Day celebration this year, Freshman Ciretta MacKenzie showed up for school wearing a Donald Trump, Make America Great Again t-shirt. This apparently didn’t go over very well with the school’s principal, Brian Ernest, who called Ciretta into his office and asked her to cover the shirt up. (Apparently “America Day” doesn’t fit in well with Making America Great.) The blowback was quick in coming, and now Ernest has apologized to Ciretta, the MacKenzie family and the entire district. (CBS Boston)
On Friday, Principal Brian Ernest sent out a letter to the school community, which stated, “I want our students to be free thinkers and be able to express their opinions in a respectful manner.”
Ernest said he had met with MacKenzie’s family and apologized for the incident.
“We have begun to draft a plan to move forward to promote civil discourse and diversity in our schools. In retrospect, I want to fully acknowledge my error in judgment and sincerely apologize if my actions were misinterpreted and offended anyone. That was never my intention.”
The Superintendent of Schools has sent out a separate letter condemning the incident and promising that they are building “a school environment that promotes open and free thought and dialogue.” As for the MacKenzie family, they have accepted the principal’s apology and say they believe he is sincere.
I suppose the “sincerity” question will remain a gray area for the time being. We can’t read into the hearts of people to gauge their sincerity. It was either a case of honest regret or fear that his career could be in jeopardy. Offering the benefit of the doubt, I suppose we’ll have to take him at his word.
But how did this entire debacle take place to begin with? There is precedent suggesting that schools can ban certain items of clothing (even when there is no school uniform in use) under certain circumstances. Back in 2013, the Fourth Circuit ruled that a South Carolina school district did not violate the free speech rights of student Candice Hardwick when they forbid her wearing clothing with Confederate flag symbols. They cited the 1969 Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The court found that schools could censor certain displays or speech if the activity “materially and substantially interfere[e] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.”
The problem is, the ruling allows schools to “anticipate” whether or not a hat or a t-shirt might produce that result rather than waiting for an actual disruption to take place. Given all of the cases we’ve seen in the news over the past few years where people in MAGA gear have been attacked or at least drawn into provocative confrontations, one might think the principal would have been on solid ground if he’d stuck to his original decision.
With that in mind (and I’d be shocked if the school didn’t look into the legal questions before responding), I’m tempted to think that the principal was sincere. Who knows? Perhaps this is a sign of more open, honest debate to come. Hats off to Principal Ernest (though perhaps not MAGA hats). Let the kids engage in debate as long as there are no fists flying.