By Ollie Gratzinger | Opinions Editor
A photograph taken last spring has recently gone viral, sparking outrage among Holocaust memorial groups and concerned citizens alike. In it, a group of high-school-aged and mostly white young men from Wisconsin posed for a prom picture, their faces alight with laughter and their arms held high in a Nazi salute.
Even though the photographer, a parent, claimed the boys were simply waving goodbye to their mothers and fathers, testimony from a fellow student, seen in the top right of the picture not taking part, confirmed the intentions of his peers and claimed that “they knew it was wrong, but they still did it.”
The blunt cultural insensitivity and historical blindness seems obvious, and yet according to NBC News, Baraboo School District won’t punish the students involved because of their “First Amendment rights.”
Young girls can be punished for showing their shoulders in school, sent home if their skirts are too short or made to change if their outfit is considered “distracting.” But, as it turns out, young men who salute Hitler and praise white power in their pre-prom photos can get off scot-free. The double standard is as insidious as it is obvious.
Furthermore, many school districts don’t allow their students to wear bandanas, hoods or hats because of fears surrounding gang affiliations, and in others, you can be suspended for finger guns or other symbols perceived as crude. I can’t think of a symbol more crude and offensive than the Nazi salute, especially so soon after 11 Jews were killed barely 15 minutes away from Duquesne’s campus.
For Jews, the social wounds from last month’s horror are still tender and raw, and even though the picture was taken long before, it still plays into the kind of horrid rhetoric that makes terrible things like Oct. 27 possible, and makes it even harder to heal from.
This isn’t an issue of free speech: It’s about the safety and wellbeing of all students in all schools. First Amendment rights shouldn’t protect those who act hatefully from the consequences of their actions. In fact, it’s time we modify and update the Constitution so that it can better apply to the vices and virtues of modernity.
A lot has changed since 1776 and since 1791, when the First Amendment was initially adopted as one of the 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights. Hitler hadn’t happened yet. No one was walking around throwing up the Nazi salute back then. So much of our history hadn’t yet been conceived, so every time we evoke First Amendment rights in issues like this, we’re calling upon ghosts from an era long passed. We bind ourselves to a time that isn’t ours, to people whose writing doesn’t reflect the social conscious we claimed to have developed over the years.
When the Founding Fathers wrote the Bill of Rights, they hadn’t anticipated the way the world would be in 2018. They hadn’t anticipated the Holocaust. They didn’t know or particularly care about the social repercussions of hate speech and hateful gestures. How, then, could the actions of the boys in Wisconsin be protected by something that hadn’t been anticipated at all?
Baraboo School District has a responsibility to protect all of its students from the ignorance and bigotry that propagates hate. By failing to punish the boys involved in this incident, it’s indirectly sending a message that the kind of behavior they demonstrated is not only acceptable, but protected. This epitomizes the privilege of young, suburban white men and encourages a cycle of consequence evasion. We need to combat hate in our society before it becomes too late to fix what’s broken.