Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Letter or the Spirit of the Law?

So, two news stories this week:

First story.  In California on Wednesday, which happened to be Cinco de Mayo some teenagers got in a bit of a controversy.  These 5 guys who are friends showed up to school wearing… gasp … American flag T-shirts.  Of course this shouldn’t be a big deal, but… they wore the shirts to their school which has a high attendance of  Hispanic teenagers who would be celebrating Cinco de Mayo.

The principal, called them into his office and told them to turn the shirts inside out, or they would have to go home.  They chose to leave the school.

The kids’ parents made it a big deal and called the media, and were very upset that their sons were being assessed an unexcused absence for wearing the shirts.  The media, namely fox news, grabbed the story and ran.  The headlines said: “American Flag banned at California School.” and “Is Wearing the American flag an act of Rebellion Now?”

The principal was reprimanded and was forced to make an apology. 

This frustrates me.  It frustrates me because, this principal was doing his job, doing what he thought to be right.  He was worried that these students, who all appear to me on the news to be kind of punk/standoffish teenage boys wore the American Flag shirts to start a controversy, to start an argument.  We all know what can happen to arguments and controversy when national pride and testosterone get involved.  Why is the principal forced to apologize when he was trying to keep students safe?  He was doing his job.  He was not banning the flag, he was banning potential violence. 

I am not sure that he did the right thing, but I am sure that he did it for the right reason.  In my book he does not owe anyone an apology.  The students put him in a bad situation and he did what he could to make sure that it did not get worse.  I will go a step further.  I believe that the parents who allowed their kids to leave the home with these shirts on, and possibly even encouraged it; these parents deserve the apology the least.

Let’s look at what may well have happened… The 5 students show up to school wearing the shirts and the principal pulls them aside to tell them that he is concerned about safety and potential fights breaking out over these shirts, but because of their right to free speech, he allows them to keep the shirts on.  During the course of the day, several hispanic students question why they have the shirts on.  Perhaps someone on either side of the argument uses some coarse language or some racially insensitive language and fists go flying.  At the very least, cops are involved and students are arrested for assault.  At the very worst, someone is seriously injured or killed.  Either way, people are charged with race hate crimes, expelled from school, possible time in juvy etc. 

We would be reading about the racial violence at the school in california, and not about the shirt controversy.  We’d be saying that the administration should have done more to stop it. 


Less than a week earlier, in the same state, a League Title was on the line at a girl’s track meet.  They were down to the final competitor in the final event.  A High School Senior would have to pole vault over seven and a half feet to get the points to win the meet for her team over their rival, who were the defending champions.  The Senior ran down the track ready to make the jump and backed off.  She said that the nerves made her feel unsure about it and she regrouped to try again.  The second time down the track, she planted the pole and easily soared over the required mark.  Her team celebrated.   However, the opposing coach, stopped the fun to point out that she had broken a rule.  He pointed out that there was a rule that competitors in track meets were not allowed to wear jewelry, and this senior was wearing a friendship bracelet made of a couple pieces of string. 

He petitioned the officials who then deliberated and realized that they had no choice but to disqualify her jump and award the defending champions the title.  The Senior immediately burst into tears.  The other team celebrated. 

The coach of the losing team, says that he believes that the coach who called foul had seen the bracelet and was waiting to use the rule to disqualify her after her jump rather than to point it out to her before her jump.  The bracelet in no way, caused her to win, in fact, the rule is only in place because of the safety for the athletes. 

The athletic director of the winning school said that “it was a victory that no was was particularly proud of”.  The coach, who has won many state titles as well as a national high school title, was quoted as saying: “you have to teach these kids that rules are rules.”


Two stories.  The principal broke the rules in the first story, the coach in the second story followed the letter of the law.  Was either one right?  Was either one wrong?  Both men will be blasted in the media for doing the wrong thing. 

My question is this: does it come down to motive?  If the principal acted the way he did in order to keep kids at his school safe; I believe he made a great choice.  In hindsight, he probably could have kept kids safe and involved his superiors and may have found a creative way to keep the kids at school without allowing their shirts to aggravate tempers. 

I believe that the motive of the coach was: to win.  I believe that he did not do what he did out of concern for anyone.  I do not believe that his thought process told him that if he did nothing that potentially this girl may have worn a thick chain necklace at the next event where she might strangle herself on the pole vault.  I believe that he found a loophole that would help his team’s record and used it. 

I believe that the motives of the students who wore the t-shirts were not to glorify our country or show pride.  I believe that they wished to take a controversial stand.  I believe they knew that they might well have to defend their decision to teachers as well as to classmates who might be very upset. 

I believe that the motive of the girl who wore the bracelet was that a piece of string gave her no advantage and could not possibly harm herself or anyone else and she may have forgotten that she had it on. 

In short.  I really, truly believe that it comes down to the heart.  Not that we can always use the heart to make a judgment or a decision, but when a decision is made based on the heart motive of keeping others safe and the opposing heart motive is to be confrontational.  I will side with the principal.

And when the heart motive of the coach is based on his desire to win by any means, and the heart motive of the athlete is that she simply forgot that her decision was so minor.  I will side with the athlete. 


Perhaps there is something wrong with us when we find ourselves arguing for the letter of the law when someone else’s motive for breaking that law was compassion, or protection.  Interesting debate.

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