By Marsha Sutton
Freedom of speech for students has been a quagmire for educators and constitutional scholars for decades. As students have pushed boundaries, they have challenged adults to preserve students’ basic democratic freedoms while ensuring the right to privacy, the right not to be bullied, and the right to limit speech that can incite hateful or violent action.
Students in a school environment are not guaranteed the same expansive right to freedom of speech or expression granted to adults in the United States, but pinpointing exactly where to draw the line has become a recurrent dilemma.
High school and college campuses repeatedly confront the problem, which has presented itself in an infinite variety of ways. Anti-gay slogans on a T-shirt, semi-nude photos in a literary magazine, and criticism of administrators in student newspaper editorials are among some of the legal challenges local high school educators have dealt with in past years.
In Florida, a former high school student, Katherine Evans, won a two-year legal battle when a settlement was reached that erased a suspension from her record for creating a Facebook page that described one of her teachers as “the worst teacher I’ve ever met.”
Pembroke Pines Charter High School principal, Peter Bayer, said the comment, made in 2007, was “cyber-bullying” and “harassment” of a staff member, and he suspended the honor student for three days. Evans will also receive a payment of $15,000 for legal fees and $1 for “damages.”
Given what students are currently saying about each other on Facebook and the horrific Formspring, this comment seems tame. Yet the principal felt Evans crossed the line and punished her all out of proportion.
Schools are often quick, too quick, to stifle student speech that may be insulting but certainly poses no threat to personal safety, incites riots or is hateful. A clear distinction should be made between expressing an opinion that someone may not like versus comments that can cause personal harm.
Complicating the issue further is how to distinguish between what high school students and college students may be allowed to express, who determines the conditions under which free expression should be suppressed, and what justification can be used to control speech when the “perpetrators” in college are legal adults.
estrictive rights on college campuses
A new report shows that the majority of college campuses are far too restrictive of students’ rights to freedom of expression. In its most recent annual report, the Foundation for Individual Rights in
Education found that the majority of major American colleges and universities fail to meet acceptable standards for freedom of speech for their student bodies.
FIRE, a national free speech advocacy organization, annually reports free-speech trends in major four-year colleges in the U.S. In this year’s report, titled “Spotlight on Speech
Codes 2011: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses,” 390 universities were reviewed.
Of the 104 private colleges, 65 percent received a red light, 24 percent a yellow light, 3 percent a green light and 8 percent not rated. Of the 286 public colleges, 67 percent received a red light, 29 percent a yellow light, 3 percent a green light and 1 percent were not rated.