Should Freedom of Expression be a right?
"If God wanted you to have a tattoo, you would have been born with one. Here in South Carolina, we still believe in God."
– South Carolina State Senator Jakie Knotts
"If God had wanted us to eat cooked food, he'd have installed a furnace in our throats."
– Anonymous author of the Fingernail Mods FAQ
Recent court cases regarding the legality of tattooing in the state of South Carolina1 have tested the question of whether the method of expression is included in the first amendment right of free speech. The court decided that freedom of speech is limited in its context, and does not in fact apply to tattooing (even though it has in the past protected far more socially questionable art forms). In this week’s column I will make the case that freedom of expression rights are both desperately needed by the modified community, and that in modern times, it makes sense to consider a freedom of expression right as a single unifying right that also protects speech, culture, and religion.
Freedom of speech does not mean that you can’t get fired from a job for insulting customers. Freedom of religion does not mean that you can try and convert every customer that comes in the door without getting fired from your job for it. I think it’s important to realize that to demand rights, we have to respect others’ rights in their own spaces in return. That is, I believe freedom of expression must be protected on a personal and public level (in your own home, in public spaces, and in government spaces like courts and schools), but that it’s also important that others be allowed to define their own spaces2 (in their own homes and businesses, in private schools, and so on).
There are two common myths I’d like to first dispel, starting with “body modification is a choice”. Yes, body modification is a choice to some extent, in that you’re not born with it like race. However, we’re not born with a belly full of food either, nor are we born with a mate, or the other things that are considered fundamental requirements of biological survival. If we look at human history, and even mammalian behaviour in general, it’s clear that there is some sort of “self-decorating instinct”. In puritan times, this is expressed through elegant dress or even physical exercise, but I don’t believe there’s a time in history where this instinct hasn’t been there, and I don’t believe there’s a person unaffected by it. We are after all not just a tool-using species, but a species that has thrived due to its power to communicate.
In my research on body modification, it appears that at least ten percent of people acutely believe that their modifications are definitive of who they are, and that restricting those drives damages them as a person. My research has also found that by denying people their modifications (either by restricting access to them in the first place or by creating social pressures to force their abandonment) they are more likely to fall into depression, as well as showing a clear link between depression survival and body modification self-expression.
These are verifiable truths. One can argue the specifics of the above of course, but as generalisations (that self-decoration is a biological instinct and that body modification can be an enormously positive self-definition and self-acceptance tool) are both difficult to refute.
The second myth is that somehow certain mediums of expression are protected but others are not; that the Constitution3 protects the written or spoken word more so than other forms of expression. The founding fathers sought to create a nation where an individual was free to do anything they chose to, short of harming those around them — every document they created screams out for the defence of personal liberty. We accept that if a group chooses to modify their bodies for religious reasons it is protected4 but that alone raises a concern: are we saying that the faithful or spiritual are endowed with more rights than atheists? Are we saying that different religions have different rights?
My IQ tops 160, I own a series of successful businesses, and I am well educated, yet I have come to conclusions about how I’d like to live my life that are different than those in the mainstream have come to. The reason I say that is when we step back, one of the paradoxes of human existence is that even the smartest people among us have been absolutely unable to figure out many universal truths as far as what’s acceptable behavior. So I might be wrong, or you might be wrong, or maybe we’re all wrong or all right on some level. As such it is essential that we define a socio-judicial system which tolerates as much personal freedom as possible without impinging on the needs and functionality of society as a whole. The only other alternative is for one group to force its potentially incorrect ideology on the rest of us using force.
Three counties in Florida, along with many other areas around America and the rest of the world have banned pierced students from attending their public schools5. First of all I should make it clear that in Florida you can be pierced only with parental consent if you are underage, and if you are under 16, not only is notarised permission needed, but the parent must be present. The kids we’re discussing here are in theory pierced with the permission of both their parents and the state government.
Recently Anna Wills, an admittedly troubled student who’d already been to juvenile court and had many problems — along with an eyebrow piercing — fell asleep in class. When Lake County school administration woke her they accused her (quite probably correctly) of being intoxicated and demanded that she submit to a urine test. She refused (given her age, they did not have the legal right to even ask — written parental consent is required for such testing), so they then simply informed her that her eyebrow piercing was a violation of school dress code and she was suspended until willing to take it out.
When she got home, she told her father what had happened, and given that this was far from the first time she’d been in trouble, he berated her and she ran up to her room. She’d hit the end of her rope — she called a few friends, and shortly thereafter put a gun to her own head. Anna Wills has been wiped off the planet. A few weeks ago she was alive. Now she’s dead, with not even an obituary marking her troubled passing.
Can I tell you with certainty that she killed herself for the sole reason that she wasn’t allowed to keep her eyebrow ring? Of course not. I can’t even tell you that she wouldn’t have killed herself a week later for some other reason. But what I can tell you is that she was a young person who’s life must have seemed like it was in shambles — like many young people she must have felt desperate and out of control. If she was anything like any of the hundreds of young people I’ve interviewed on this subject, her eyebrow piercing — control over her own body that is — may well have seemed like the only thing she had left. They tried to take it away, and it was too much for her.
I called the Lake County School Board and spoke at length with Lyn Jones6, their “Safe Schools” appointee who is in charge of coordinating school policy on these subjects. She confirmed to me that ear piercings (of all kinds) were permitted for students of both genders, as well as tattoos (students with racist or otherwise questionable tattoos would be asked to cover them though), but that no other piercings were permitted. She confirmed that this also applied to piercings underneath clothing, if the school were to find out about them.
When asked exactly why they’d instituted such a policy, she told me that it was important that the schools enact policies to ensure that the students don’t come in contact with anything “unusual or different”, since that would be extremely “disruptive” to the educational process. It’s understandable that if something is so upsetting or distracting to students that it disrupts the educational process that it should be kept out of schools — but can we really say that a simple body piercing is such a thing, especially while maintaining that a tattoo is not?
I asked Ms. Jones whether the school board had any plans to ban particularly attractive young women from attending classes with pubescent boys, or whether they intended to set aside special classrooms to avoid the teasing and disruption that obese students receive — naturally she refused to answer my ridiculous question. But don’t write it off so quickly — if we’re to simply address things functionally, we all know that piercings rank incredibly low on the disruption charts, if at all.
The second typical explanation was then offered — that if a student were to get in a fight that they would be at greater risk of injury if they had piercings. Ignoring the extremely disturbing comment it makes to have to enact school policy to make our children more effective street fighters, let’s quickly dispel this fallacy. First of all, one is just as likely to be injured by non-piercing related jewelry, long hair, drinking fountains, and so on. More importantly, Lake County schools do have parking lots and do allow students to drive to school. It goes without saying that driving is an activity that is probably millions of times more dangerous than piercing. In addition, like most schools, those in Lake County encourage their sports teams — in which many students have been injured, even seriously, over the years.
Robert Van Winkle of the nearby Feelin’ Lucky Tattoo (who has been active in attending board meetings and serving as a voice for the local pierced community, as well as having pierced hundreds of young people attending Lake County schools) pointed out both to me and to the school board that by requiring students to take out piercings at the start of the school day and then returning them at day’s end, they are forcing the students to spend the day with an open wound. In his role as a professional, he informed them that this policy was actively endangering students and that if it were to continue, it would mean that the school board was knowingly engaging in child abuse. The school board held that keeping piercings out of the public schools was more important than protecting the safety of pierced students.
This is a policy that isn’t in the best interests of the students, the teachers, or the education system in general. It is the result of a small handful of individuals attempting to force their social and political agenda on the population as a whole. It teaches profoundly repressive anti-freedom and unamerican attitudes to students. It sends students a frightening message: root out and destroy that which is unique; that diversity is to be punished, not celebrated. The founding fathers sought a land where freedom was protected, and in order to protect freedom one must tolerate a range of expression. Without that concession, freedom can not exist.
While researching this story, I was approached by a student attending Kent State University in Akron, Ohio. As a part of their “police role” course is the requirement to participate on a ride-along with local police. This student wrote to tell me that they had been blocked from participating because of their small number of facial piercings with the reasoning that their “body piercings would endanger the officer”. I spoke with Akron Police who explained to me that while they had absolutely no problem with piercing, the students would be acting as representatives of the police department and would have to enter civilian homes among other things.
Police work in an imperfect world. Because of the wide range of people they have to deal with, in order to do their job effectively they need to maintain an absolutely mainstream appearance. To not do so puts them in jeopardy and in turn puts the larger community in jeopardy. You may be wondering why I’d bring up a case of “discrimination” and then support it, but something I’m trying to illustrate clearly is that while body modification should be a right, it doesn’t mean that it’s always no-questions-asked permissable in all circumstances. Special cases such as the police, as well as privately held spaces can of course create their own rules — that’s the wonderful thing about freedom (everybody gets some, but no one gets it all).
I have to apologise for being rather disjointed on this article — I’ve only just skimmed multiple topics which could each be their own book. I would like to very briefly talk to young people who may find themselves in the same position as Anna Wills did. Like Anna — and like myself — you can’t always rely on your parents to support you in this decision, as they may both not understand it, and, just as likely, may be utterly blind to its value if you have other problems.
Strength is in numbers. A school board can expel just one poor student without raising eyebrows or having to answer many questions. The Lake County school board, according to local piercers and students has at least dozens of students with visible piercings, but only “problem students” get expelled. You might think I’m reading you the script to the movie Pump Up The Volume, but our investigations were quite clear that not only is there a general ban on piercing, but that it’s being used as a tool to get rid of students where there is no other legal reason to do so. I informed the Lake County School Board of this and they assured me that there were no visibly pierced students in their school, and that the rule was absolute and not discretionary in any way. They also informed me that any teachers not upholding these rules would be subject to disciplinary action.
If students form a petition that says “I have body piercings and I refuse to remove them” and get more than a dozen students to sign it, and submit copies of this to the school board along with a list of their teachers, the school board is immediately forced to repeal the law — they simply can not expel that many students without very solid justification, especially if even one or two parents will stand with the students.
Finally, let me send out a stern warning to parents and school boards. Anna Wills isn’t the first student to kill herself where the demand to remove piercings acted as a trigger, and she won’t be the last. Some people feel very strongly on this subject, and you may not get “lucky” with a suicide. Next time it may be homicidal self-destruction rather than suicidal self-destruction. The line between extreme depression and extreme anger is a very fine one. Do you really want your prejudicial rule to kick-start the next Columbine massacre?
In conclusion, I hope that I’ve illustrated that body modification is a positive act that free people have a right to pursue. In addition, I hope I’ve shown that protecting body modification (even if one disagrees with it) protects other rights and freedoms in general. Finally, I hope I’ve made clear that the current policies that are being pushed on our young people are both damaging to them personally and to society in general, and are a product not of concern for the students’ safety or education, but of personal prejudices.
We must defend the freedom of expression as passionately as the other rights we hold dear. To suggest that freedom is somehow restricted to only certain mediums is a clear oxymoron and an insult to liberty. It’s about time we stood up and pointed that out.
South Carolina supports a ban on tattooing for religious reasons (with Senators like the above quoted Jakie Knotts making statements like “I just don’t believe in marking up the body that the good Lord gave you — You get me a letter from the president of the South Carolina Baptist Association endorsing [the legalisation of tattooing] and I just might change my mind.”). Tattoo artist Ron White documents his fight — which so far has given him a five year sentence and fines — on his website, www.freedomtattoo.com. In his case the prosecution successfully argued that freedom of speech does not apply to the body (although ear piercing is acceptable to them).
2 Please see my earlier column, Body Modification as a Form of Class Consciousness and Class Warfare for a proposal for the modified community to fight private-sector discrimination without stomping on anyone’s rights (ie. by consumer action rather than legal action). For example, while I find it personally distasteful, I support the right of the Clemens Foundation to withdraw its private scholarship fund because it feels that the students in their town are “not the kind of people they want to support” since they are pierced and support gay rights. It is an ignorant attitude, but ultimately one must support their right to live their lives they way they choose to if we want to demand the same right.
3 I use the US Constitution as a reference point as it is widely accepted as one of the defining documents of personal freedom, and because it has served as a model for the constitutions of many other nations, including Canada where BME is published from.
4 The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission confirmed their support of this statement earlier this year in the case of Kimberly Cloutier vs. CostCo (Cloutier claims her eyebrow ring is an essential element of her faith).
5 I want to be clear that these are public schools, not private schools. While I find it personally distasteful, I fully support a private school’s right to any dress code they want — since they are private, students can always choose a different school. It’s only an issue when it’s a public school since that forces a student to choose between their body modifications and their education, which is clearly an unreasonable decision to force on a young people.
6 Lyn Jones’s office may be reached at (352) 253-6675. The next policy review period should be begin in February or March, and will be announced in local papers for 27 days. There will be meetings open to the public, and Ms. Jones has said that she welcomes comment on the subject.
Next week: “Why I won’t be seeing any more Adam Sandler movies.”