Free speech in primary school? Should a 13 year old be punished for wearing a black armband to school to protest War? How about a teen for expressing his opposition to homosexuality or a kindergartener suspended for a “poo-poo head” insult? A recent study by a law professor at George Washington University attempted to address the thorny question of student free speech in primary education.
These students were disciplined not for something they did, but for what they said.
Certainly some speech is not protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment and can be censored or punished by schools, such as libel, slander and speech that goes over the line into criminal harassment. The U.S. Supreme Court has granted schools the ability to regulate on-campus speech likely to cause a “material disruption” of the educational environment and “true threats” that threaten the school safety.
But in modern society the questions become complicated when addressing the schools’ responsibility to provide “safe spaces” and the advent of social networks and cyberbullying.
George Washington University Law professor, Catherine Ross, writes that these “[Students] are learning exactly the opposite of the lesson we should be teaching them in school. … We should be teaching them to be active citizens who are engaged and feel they can speak up and be listened to and maybe have an impact on society,… Instead, we’re teaching them that we have an authoritarian state and that you speak up at your peril, which is very dangerous for the long-run.”
The professor believes the cure lies in more speech, not less. Offensive speech should be met by others’ civil speech stating why the opposite is true.
The Supreme Court can’t resolve every free speech question, so lower courts have to flesh out the facts and apply them to the law. Many free speech cases involving students are settled before litigation is over or never make it to the filing stage. Professor Ross writes that educators and civil libertarians are left without much guidance.
These school cases involve all of society’s highly disputed political and cultural social issues: politics, war, weapons, immigration, LGBT rights, abortion. Students fall on all sides of the issues.
The professor cites former Justice Robert H. Jackson, who wrote that the Constitutional rights of students must be “scrupulous[ly] protect[ed]…if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.” https://gwtoday.gwu.edu/what-can’t-you-say-school