Court rulings have provided precedent about how K-12 students may express their opinions—even potentially offensive ones—on campus, but a new set of guidelines attempts to provide further clarity for school administrators under pressure to curb bullying and harassment.
The new guidelines shared today were produced by the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Freedom Education Project/First Amendment Center, both based in Washington, and they say that schools must not censor students’ speech purely out of the fear of potential bullying.
Too often, “anytime anyone says something that makes anyone uncomfortable, it’s bullying,” said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, in Washington.
For example, if a student wears a shirt that says “Be Happy, Not Gay,” “that’s going to be offensive to other students, even hurtful,” Mr. Haynes said.
“Unless it causes a substantial disruption, it’s important for administrators not to overreact by simply trying to censor the speech of a student,” he said, echoing the standard defined more than 40 years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines School District. Schools are a training ground for teaching students to live in a democratic society, one where censorship isn’t the first reaction to offensive speech, Mr. Haynes said.
“We want a respectful exchange of ideas. Schools should sincerely work on that—teaching students to express views without hurting people,” he said. Blocking students’ ability to express themselves could backfire, with students taking more drastic action in response.
More than a dozen groups have endorsed the new guidelines, including the American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association, both in Alexandria, Va.; the National Association of State Boards of Education in Arlington, Va., and several religious organizations.
The need for clarification on the topic has heightened as the Obama administration has taken a more active role against bullying among the nation’s children and teenagers. In 2010, the U.S. Education Department’s office for civil rights issued guidance to school districts that said some forms of harassment rooted in sex-role stereotyping or religious differences may be a federal civil rights violation, and schools are responsible for addressing harassment incidents about which they know or reasonably should have known.
The guidelines issued today are not intended to be legal advice, however, and, ultimately, school principals and administrators must decide how to handle each situation.
Something that may not be a substantial disruption at one school may be at another, said Sonja Trainor, a senior staff attorney for the NSBA. Consider, she said, a situation in which a student wears a T-shirt that is designed to target a specific classmate.
She said the guidelines also caution schools to consider the age and grade levels of students involved.