When I was in elementary school my classmate, Danny, drew a swastika on his arm. The principal saw the Nazi symbol and reacted with righteous anger, making it clear that he hated the Nazis because they had killed his buddies during the war. After getting the infamous school soap and paper towels, he went to work on that Swastika. I think he would have scrubbed that arm to the bone to remove the symbol of evil; fortunately for Danny the ink yielded before his skin did. I must be clear that Danny was not a Nazi or even a white nationalist; he was just a kid doing something he thought was rebellious or cool without understanding the implications. That day had a lasting impression on me—whenever I see modern Nazis doing their thing, I still think of the anger of a man whose friends had been killed by the Nazis. He was, obviously, right to be angry and Nazis are not to be tolerated. But what about uninformed kids who display Nazi symbols or seem to do the Nazi salute?
Perhaps the best-known recent example of this occurred in Wisconsin: a group of students appear to be doing the Nazi salute in a photo. The initial response from school officials was to assert that they did not know the intentions of the students and that they could not be punished because of the First Amendment. Oddly, it was then claimed that the photo did not really show students engaged in the Nazi salute; it was claimed that they were waving, and it just looked like they were saluting. That is, as a matter of pure chance, they just happened to have their arms and hands in that position at the same time. While this is not impossible, the photo had been posted with the caption “We even got the black kid to throw it up” and this suggests that it was no accident of photography. It could still be claimed that it was an accident and the person posting it just took advantage of this unfortunate shot. This seems improbable, but not beyond the realm of possibility. If the photographer were just clicking off shots and that was just one in the series, that it would seem to be a simple matter to show that the students are just waving and happen to all be captured at the same time doing what looks exactly like a Nazi salute. Obviously enough, if the students were just waving, then there is no problem here. But, if the students were doing the Nazi salute, then the first defense needs to be addressed: are the students protected by the First Amendment (or the moral freedom of expression)?
As many others have pointed out, schools routinely and legally restrict the First Amendment rights of students even in very minor matters and without agonizing over the intention of the students. As a legal matter, the answer would seem to be that the students are not protected—unless the other restrictions are also illegal. A reasonable reply is that asserting a practice is legal and common provides no moral defense. After all, what is legal need not be moral and what is common need not be right (to think otherwise would be to fall victim to the fallacy of common practice). So, it could be argued that the school acted rightly in this matter by respecting the students’ right of free expression. However, holding to this position would entail applying the same principle consistently. So, if students have the moral right to make the Nazi salute without being punished, then they should have the right to express views of equal or lesser evil. As such, students should be allowed to throw gang signs, wear shirts emblazoned with “Eat the Rich”, dress as they see fit, and so on. After all, one cannot know their true intentions and the First Amendment protects them.
Being a supporter of free expression, I do think that schools are overly restrictive of student liberty. Being rational, I do recognize that rights and liberties must have limits. As thinkers like Hobbes and Mill have argued, liberty requires restricting liberty (and rights requires restricting rights). While this sounds very Orwellian or paradoxical, it is not. To use an obvious example, your liberty to express yourself requires a restriction of my liberty to silence you. As another example, your right to property requires restricting the rights of others to take your stuff. The moral and practical challenge is balancing rights, liberties and other moral concerns to determine what is best (or at least good enough).
As the opening of this essay indicates, the students doing the Nazi salute immediately brought to mind the incident from my past. I think that the principal acted rightly: the student needed to be taught that Nazis are evil and that displaying their symbol in school or at a school event, even in youthful ignorance, is not morally acceptable. As such, restricting students from displaying Nazi symbols at school or school events is morally acceptable. In the case of the Nazi salute, let us assume that the students acted from their youthfulness and not from being real Nazis. As such, they should be taught the truth about Nazi and why doing that salute is morally wrong.
It could be objected that this approach violates the students’ right to free expression and thought: they should be free to do the Nazi salute and even to be Nazis, if they do not break the law or harm people. This position is tempting, since people who do not take it can be accused of not really supporting the freedom of expression. After all, one might argue, if I silence Nazi expression, how can I truly be for free expression? The easy and obvious reply is that we all draw the line somewhere—there is some behavior or expression that cannot be accepted. For example, imagine a student who is a necrophiliac who specializes in bestiality and wants to express their ideas in class with a video or (partially) live demonstration involving the classes’ deceased guinea pig? Surely it would be acceptable to restrict that expression. As such, the ethics of restricting expression is not a matter of whether one accepts it as absolute or rejects it utterly but where the boundaries are located. What expression one defends indicates one’s moral views; to fight for Nazi free expression is a moral statement. This is especially relevant when what one defends is contrasted with what one restricts; that provides an interesting map of a person’s moral values. So, if a person rushes to defend Nazi salutes but balks at defending the rights of those in Black Lives Matter, then they have shown part of their moral map. Someone who leaps to defend the expression of transgender people but balks at defending Christian conservatives has also revealed part of their moral map. But, getting back to Nazis.
We know what Nazism is and where it leads; there is nothing new worth learning here from expressions of Nazism. As such, I am morally fine with restricting Nazi expressions, even when the expression is but a youthful rebellion done in ignorance. I understand people can say the same thing about what they do not like—this is the problem of having some rather than no moral limits: if you have moral limits, you must accept that other people will have them as well. But this is not to embrace moral relativism or subjectivism—accepting that others have different views of ethics is not to accept that everyone (and hence no one) is right. While people tend to treat freedom of expression as special, it is no different from other aspects of morality. So, just as some behavior (like murder) can be restricted while consistently holding that some behavior is morally fine, one can hold that some expression should be restricted (like Nazi expression) while some is morally fine. That said, one could take the position of absolute freedom—the sort envisioned in Hobbes’ nightmare state of nature.