If we are to manage the liberties of the individual while providing an education in a non-threatening, respectful environment, we will need to initiate what may be a polite but uncomfortable conversation about our entitlements and obligations.
After all, offensive is often in the eye of the beholder. At a time when we would like civil discourse, civility is in short supply. At a time when common sense is fairly uncommon, educators cannot fail to recognize student civil rights.
“I think it’s important to note that while schools do have some authority to take custodial care of children while they’re in attendance, it’s been clear for at least seven decades now that students do not lose their constitutional rights when they go to school.”
The Student newspaper
David Hudson, Jr. is an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University, First Amendment ombudsman for the Newseum Institute First Amendment Center and the author of “Let the Students Speak!: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools.” The book is well worth reading for any educator seeking a legal history of student expression and, as important, insights into the impulses that drive student expression and our responses.
While he’s a champion of student journalism, he also believes that an educator should teach the responsibilities of free speech. “I do think you want to educate students about libel laws and privacy laws. There are certain types of stories you want to look out for. You want to inculcate a culture of double-checking and editing thoroughly,” Hudson said.
Such care, though, is not a censorship tool. “Do you want to censor material just because you think it might ruffle some feathers? Good journalism is going to ruffle some feathers… We don’t want to silence the voices of students who are really trying to learn journalism,” Hudson said.
Grounded In Fact
Familiarize yourself with precedence and potential scenarios related to freedom of expression. In doing so, you will be more likely to calmly engage those affected and make arguments grounded in fact.
The Fourth amendment
Use this summary of cases concerning student rights in educational settings to guide decision-making when considering whether speech or behavior is actually “disruptive.”
In all such cases educators would need to consider not only the law but also the interpretation of the law in relation to the community. For instance, one school was overruled in not allowing a nose ring on one student, while another school was allowed to ask a student to remove a shirt decorated with a Confederate flag. In cases of religious liberty, a school was not allowed to appoint a school student chaplain while another school was forced to allow an after-hours religious club to hold meetings on school grounds because the club was not funded or otherwise supported by the school.
While student rights are clearly not absolute, neither are an educator’s right to enforce discipline arbitrarily.