Free to Be Me

Passionate about public speaking, communicating and taking naps. I also make really good brownies.

Suburbs aren’t exactly known for diversity. Rather, they are often hallmarked by cookie-cutter neighborhoods, conformity throughout the town, and overhyped bake sales. The Woodlands seems to need no introduction, its name giving it away as the quintessential suburb. Every strip mall is the same color scheme, regardless of the expected logo colors for common chains. In an attempt to seem pretty, the trees the town is named for cover up any semblance of civilization, yet underneath the covering lies a bustling suburb in the metropolitan of Houston.

The trees cover more than the buildings; they provide conformity.

The disparity between the city about fifty miles south on I-45 and the brown colored buildings shielded by tall trees is one that extends beyond economic prosperity; it transcends into the realm of one’s ability to be themselves. To express themselves.

In October, I held a roundtable at my local library with debate students in the eleventh and twelfth from The Woodlands High School, who are intimately familiar with the importance of the right to free speech and expression. Conversely, they are also well versed in the dangers of extending that speech too far. The room was a jumble of ethnicities and genders, though the majority did lean towards the left, galvanized by any discussion of rights.

We began the round table with a simple question: “Do you feel comfortable with your ability to express your identity here?” The most encapsulating response came from 12th grader, Tania Pena-Reyes, that

“While I haven’t faced problems, I’m also painfully aware of the fact that my identity, as a straight woman, isn’t one that is being actively suppressed by the school.”

As her answer was echoed in various ways around the table, we viewed the question from a different lens, analyzing what environment they believed would truly be best for them to be themselves. Around the table, students chimed in, from eliminating the dress code (or de-sexualizing it), to removing gendered bathrooms.

Some students felt that their ability to be themselves wasn’t the issue, but rather their access to free speech, in an expression-linked way rather than an identity-linked one.

One student brought up the attempt at a vigil after the Parkland shooting in 2018. Our school, after much pushback, allowed us to hold a vigil for the seventeen students, but not caveats. They capped the space we had available, refused to allow any mention of guns throughout the conversation, threatening suspension.

Suspension seems to be a common threat in our school when it comes to anything remotely activism related, noted 12th grader Nico Gonzalez. The administration wields the suspension sword on the first offense when it comes to climate walkouts and really tries to enforce the pledge of allegiance, though they legally can’t. It’s expected that a school wants to protect its students from an environment that could be potentially triggering or hurtful, but the method of our school seems to be more misguided than helpful. In an attempt to censor hate speech, the school has managed to ignore it.

On the subject of hate speech though, we next considered the delineation between free speech and hate speech.

All the seniors, proud of their government class, cited the “clear and present danger” test from Schneck v. US. Tania broke from the ranks, stating that “Some speech is meant to dehumanize. While SCOTUS may not see it as a danger, the threat of dehumanization is dangerous.

Some speech is meant to dehumanize.

The underclassmen offered up examples of the school’s history, where not only had hate speech been ignored, but even enabled. In one hallmark moment for their class, a student had hurled racial slurs at an African American students over Snapchat. For them, “the clear and present danger” was too vague; their experience only showed that it is far too easy to wiggle out of the margins of danger. The perpetrator getting off scot-free and the victim switching schools only reinforced their belief. As a result, none were too enthusiastic about the school’s ability to protect students from hate speech, let alone truly even recognize the nature of hate speech.

In an attempt to escape the danger of cities, suburbs are supposed to be these hallowed halls of safety. By limiting free speech, by failing to appropriately find the line between hate speech and free speech, suburbs have turned into just as jarring and discordant a location as the city; no longer an escape from the hostile, but rather the instigator, cloaked in this veil of conformity. Suburbs don’t have to be the epitome of conformity, rather they can afford to take on aspects of their city; let’s begin with allowing our students to truly feel safe being themselves.