Policing speech is part of a good school's job
By Tom Farquhar
Post education blogger Valerie Strauss concluded that “sanity was restored” when Churchill High School officials reversed their decision to cancel a student production of “Chicago” [The Answer Sheet, Oct. 29]. Later she said, “I think this kind of censorship is an assault on free speech.” After all, she reasons, it was “impossible for anybody at school to claim that they didn’t know it was about murder and sex and other themes that, come to think of it, run through Shakespeare’s plays too.”
Methinks the lady doth protest too much. The Supreme Court has explicitly acknowledged that students’ free-speech rights may be limited as schools carry out their responsibility to “safeguard those entrusted to their care” (Frederick v Morse, 2007). The court has argued that students’ rights must be “balanced against the society’s countervailing interest in teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior” (Hazelwood School District v Kuhlmeier, 1988).
As a private school administrator with substantially greater latitude in these matters than my public school counterparts, I take the argument one step further than the court. Since the schoolhouse offers one of the first and most formative contexts (after the family) for the child to engage with the world beyond the self, it is vital that the school teach the rudiments of living and working productively in community and in society. Among these are habits of civility, generosity and consideration for the feelings of others.
It is absolutely not the place of government to legislate these matters. Rather, it is the province of families and schools to offer models for productive, constructive and, yes, at times critical speech. Of course kids hear more racy stuff than this on television, in movies, and on the Internet. But since when were schools reduced to holding no higher standard than the worst extremes of publicly accessible speech? Of course kids test out “bad language” in locker rooms and at lunch tables when out of earshot of adults. But when did it become impermissible for the school to constrain even the speech it sponsors, such as the lines of the school play, or the language used by a teacher in the classroom?
The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law ..... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” and the Supreme Court has made it clear that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” (Tinker v Des Moines, 1969). Yet clearly the framers of the Constitution did not mean to prohibit schools from making rules for student conduct.
Sometimes in the schoolhouse, speech is expression — the black armbands of Tinker are a good example — but sometimes speech is conduct; sometimes it is abusive, disrespectful, inappropriate, cruel, hostile, hurtful or hateful. It is a sad day when education reporters, fixated on their own First Amendment rights, consider it insanity when school officials sincerely seek the middle ground on these difficult issues.
The writer is head of the Bullis School in Potomac.
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