May schools enforce speech codes on school grounds?

Friday, May 31, 2002

Schools can prohibit students from harassing other students on school grounds. However, schools must ensure that their speech codes are narrowly drafted in order to survive a First Amendment challenge.

In 2001, a federal appeals court in Pennsylvania struck down a student anti-harassment code that prohibited “unsolicited derogatory remarks, jokes, demeaning comments or behaviors, slurs, mimicking, name calling, graffiti, innuendo, gestures, physical contact, threatening, bullying, extorting or the display or circulation of written material or pictures.” (See an article about this.)

The appeals court determined that the student speech code was overly broad and could include “much ‘core’ political and religious speech,” which should receive First Amendment protection.

At the college level, many speech codes have been struck down on First Amendment grounds. Kevin O’Shea, publisher of the monthly newsletter First Amendment Rights in Education, predicts that “we could very well be witnessing the initial stages of a similar phenomenon in public elementary and secondary schools.”

He adds that “it is likely that many more school districts will see their own anti-harassment policies overturned in the face of First Amendment scrutiny.”

Schools have a duty to ensure a safe learning environment free from hostility and harassment. However, schools must also ensure that they do not impose far-reaching restrictions on student speech in their efforts to eliminate harassment.