Was DeKalb board member wrong to allow son to wear mocking T-shirt to CNN tour?

DeKalb elected officials Nancy and Stan Jester lead public lives and often take positions that earn them criticism in their county. She's a county commissioner; he is a school board member.

I assume a thick skin runs in their family, given what they allowed their seventh grader to wear on a school field trip to CNN. Jaxon wore a T-shirt that mocked the network, proclaiming it "FNN -- Fake News Network." A teacher asked him to remove it before the tour.

The school has since apologized to the Jesters, although Nancy Jester said the school should apologize to their son as well.

The issue for me isn't what the boy wore, but whether the parents, especially a school board member, should have allowed him to do so.

I will let Stan Jester tell the story, via his blog:

Back in October, the girls at Cedar Grove High School in the DeKalb County School District (DCSD) took a knee before their playoff game. In a statement issued by DeKalb Schools, “If students should elect to express their free speech rights, we want to create and provide a safe space to do so. The goal is not to interfere with the students’ constitutional right to freedom of speech.”

I advocate for the First Amendment across the board. I hope the freedom of students to express themselves will be vigilantly defended across the political, religious, etc … spectrums.

CNN is a popular destination for school field trips across the state. Every year the 7th grade at Peachtree Charter Middle School tours the CNN studios.

This year when the CNN tour was announced, my 7th grade son Jaxon asked me if he could purchase an FNN-Fake News Network shirt to wear for his field trip. As an advocate for the First Amendment, I agreed to his request. He picked out the shirt he wanted and ordered it from Amazon. His mother cautioned him that he might cause a controversy and needed to be prepared for that. He was fully aware of the implications of his decision and made the affirmative choice to wear his shirt.

Nancy took his picture this morning as he left for school. We received a phone call from the principal at the middle school this morning informing us that he was forced to change his shirt.

I’m disappointed by the hypocrisy of this decision. Some students are celebrated when they make a controversial display during the National Anthem. My student was forced to remove his shirt because someone didn’t like it. I defend speech and expression, even if I disagree, or it makes me uncomfortable.

This experience is teaching my son an interesting lesson.

There are excellent comments on Stan Jester’s blog debating this. And the Jesters are taking on all comers, responding at length to critics.

Here are two of the responses reflecting the differing reactions to what happened:

One commenter said:  I see several problems here. No matter how you try to explain it, the shirt was at best irritating. Yes, I am a liberal, but I would think it was equally disrespectful for a child to wear a FAUX news shirt to the Fox studio. No, it wasn’t a charming, funny political statement, but a statement that was, as I said, at best irritating. I have many political shirts but I am careful where I wear them.  If this boy had not been the son of a board member, do you think the apology would have come so quickly? I don’t think so. And why, if the teacher and principal apologized, is all this being posted? Way to make a middle school incident wildly political.

Another said: Incredible! I am disgusted by this censorship and the inability of some to allow opposing views to be expressed. Why does DeKalb choose to fight this battle? Considering CNN had a scandal with the substantiation of a story, one could argue it was not a political statement. It could have been a great teachable moment about Yellow Journalism and the scathing and at times libelous editorials under false names at the birth of our nation. To all that think I am a right-winger, I generally prefer CNN to Fox. A sad day for free speech.

Apparently the teacher who noticed the shirt thought the message bordered on obscene. As Nancy Jester explained:

After the class was back from the field trip, the principal and the teacher involved called me. The teacher involved said that she told Jax to change his shirt because she thought his shirt said “F-CNN.” I told her that it absolutely did NOT say that. She apologized and said that she now realizes that the shirt has no profanity or suggestion of profanity on it. The principal stated that he should have been made aware of the situation before Jax was made to change his shirt. He apologized for the incident. We discussed how the shirt could have provided valuable learning opportunities if Jax and his fellow students could have explored how we get news and how we process it. The teacher agreed.

Once home Jax described the situation a little differently. He stated that after he boarded the bus for the trip, the teacher came onto his bus and called his name to come forward. He did so. He felt that he was spoken to in a harsh tone and told he must change. He was respectful and complied. He was very upset but kept that to himself.

My take: Field trips are challenging and one of the extras schools provide to benefit students. And the CNN tour is worthwhile, having taken it with my children. It's an amazing place to see in action. As a parent who has chaperoned a lot of field trips, I would avoid sending my child off with an attitude or attire that could create problems not only for teachers, but parent chaperones, most of whom take off work to give their time.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.