Suppression of student speech won’t fix school problems

Sunday, March 11, 2001

When a kid is mocked or called names in school, something must be done about it. No one should have to suffer daily humiliation and ridicule as the price of an education.

But when school officials issue far-reaching edicts banning “verbal harassment,” the cure becomes worse than the disease. Not only do such policies risk violating student speech rights, they also fail to get at the root of the problem.

That's why a recent federal appeals court decision striking down an anti-harassment policy in a Pennsylvania school district is a welcome dose of common sense.

No one could object to the policy's laudatory goal of ending verbal and physical harassment in the schools.

But it's political correctness gone wild to ban all jokes, name-calling and teasing about race, sex, national origin, sexual orientation or other personal characteristics. Other parts of the policy were equally sweeping, including a section that prohibited comments about “values” that someone might find offensive.

Why are some schools adopting draconian speech codes? Doubtless much of the motive is to create a safer learning environment. High-profile tragedies like the recent shooting in a California school fuel renewed efforts to prevent bullying and intimidation among students.

There's also an understandable fear of litigation. “Harassment” lawsuits are proliferating these days, and school officials are struggling to prevent behavior that might land them in court.

In the Pennsylvania case, however, the very policy intended to prevent litigation triggered it instead. Two students filed suit, claiming that they would face punishment if they expressed religious views about the sinfulness of homosexuality.

Although a district court judge sided with the school, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit overturned that ruling, saying the policy was far too broad.

Yes, schools have the power to regulate some student speech. The Supreme Court has previously held that public schools may ban speech that is lewd or vulgar and limit speech that would substantially disrupt the school.

But this policy went much further, prohibiting all kinds of expression that should be protected by the First Amendment.

The 3rd Circuit's decision should help slow down the rush in some school districts to use censorship as a quick and easy way to address harassment. Putting a tight lid on the problem doesn't make it go away.

The real issue isn't that kids have too much freedom; it's that they're given too few opportunities to exercise freedom with responsibility.

If you want to see kids learning to be free and responsible citizens, visit Hyde Leadership Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

Hyde students are encouraged to be active citizens, involved in school governance and in their community. They come together twice a week to discuss concerns, problems and achievements in the school community. Parents are involved in all aspects of school life. Every classroom and activity reflects the core values of the school, such as courage, integrity and conscience.

Hyde students prove that if schools put character and citizenship first, freedom need not be sacrificed in the name of discipline.

The only lasting and effective way to end harassment is to create schools that are laboratories of freedom — places where students learn what it means to live as responsible and moral citizens in a free society.

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