Speech And Bullying Guidelines Released
Special Report - May 31, 2012
A diverse group of religious, education and civil liberties organizations has released a set of guidelines aimed at helping public schools address school bullying and harassment, while also protecting the First Amendment right of students to freely express their religious and political beliefs about controversial issues such as abortion and homosexuality. The document, Harassment, Bullying and Free Expression: Guidelines for Free and Safe Public Schools, was released at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on May 22.
Produced by the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Education Project of the First Amendment Center, the guidelines are endorsed by 15 organizations, including the Christian Legal Society, the National Association of Evangelicals, Christian Educators Association International, and the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School, the National School Boards Association, and the American Association of School Administrators, among others.
According to the Christian Legal Society, which endorsed the document, the purpose of the guidelines is “to assist public school educators in their dual mission of protecting all students from bullying and harassment while simultaneously respecting all students’ legitimate freedom of expression, including religious speech.” Kim Colby, senior counsel for the Christian Legal Society, described the guidelines in a press release as a “valuable tool for teaching students to respect other students’ ideas and values, including religious beliefs, which may differ from their own.”
The guidelines explain that, “Students should be able to attend public schools where they are free to share their views and engage in discussions about religious and political differences while simultaneously attending safe schools that prohibit discrimination, bullying and harassment. Although in most instances these two principles are compatible, they collide in some cases.” The guidelines also note that “[t]he First Amendment protects a wide range of student expression that some listeners may find offensive or upsetting.”
When it comes to disciplinary action for students, the guidelines make a distinction between “true threats of physical harm” or “harassment,” and “speech intended to convey a student’s viewpoint or ideas on social, religious, political or cultural issues (among others),” which “may not be the basis for disciplinary action absent a showing of substantial disruption (or likely disruption) or a violation of another student’s legal rights.” The guidelines note that, “Schools should teach students that, as a general matter, there is no right to be free of speech one does not like, whether in school or elsewhere.”
The guidelines also advise schools to “not attempt to coerce or pressure students to change the core content of a message that is constitutionally protected.” The guidelines also emphasize that, “school officials have an affirmative duty to prevent anti-harassment and anti-bullying rules from being used as a ‘heckler’s veto’ of unpopular speech.”
Additionally, the guidelines urge school officials who are confronted with a student’s claim that another student’s speech about an idea constitutes harassment or bullying to consider explaining the following to the student in an age-appropriate manner:
- that disagreement about an idea is not necessarily a personal attack;
- that some students’ faiths may require them to express their views publicly;
- that students have a right to disagree with the view of other students or the school and to express that disagreement; and
- that the most effective response to an idea one disagrees with is often to express a contrary idea, not censorship.
Most importantly, the guidelines note that in these instances, where an idea has been expressed, “Suppression of speech should be the last, not first, resort.”
“Prevention of harassment and bullying is essential for healthy, effective public schools. But that effort must not lead to excessive limitations on the constitutional right of students to freedom of expression,” the guidelines conclude. “School officials have an obligation to seek the right balance between upholding free speech and maintaining a safe learning environment for all students.”
ADF Submits Model Bullying Policy - May 23, 2011
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"The School Violence Prevention Act: How to Implement the New Law Without Promoting Homosexuality," - FNC - Winter 2010
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