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Posted at 6:33 PM ET, 11/ 6/2009

Policing speech is part of a good school's job

By washingtonpost.com editors

By Tom Farquhar
Potomac


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.

By washingtonpost.com editors  | November 6, 2009; 6:33 PM ET
 
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Comments

Administrators let preparation for the show to proceed for months. Only when opening night approached, did they notice the non-Bowlderized version of the play was being staged. How embarrassing. Not for the school or the performers, but for the administrators, who would be viewed as condoning the play's language and subject matter. High school kids are a coupla years away from possible participation in war, which is obscene no matter how glorious the vicarious experience of it may seem. This isn't a First Amendment issue. It's an issue with administrators who don't know what is going on under the roof they administrate. Why not do "Pillow Talk" next time? Oh, wait, there are homosexual overtones in that one.

Posted by: BlueTwo1 | November 7, 2009 4:32 AM | Report abuse

I agree that schools have some rights to regulate speech, depending on the speech they are trying to regulate. I note, however, that the other instances Strauss reported were the canceling of performances of The Laramie Project and Rent (both including homosexual characters) in more than one school. In the case of Chicago, the school canceled the performance, reversed itself, went back and forth, and finally allowed the performance.

Here's what I think happened. Somewhere along the way in the preparation of all of those performances - which were, of course, pre-approved by the school administration - a small group of vocal parents who are opposed to any mention of homosexuality or sexuality in general made complaints to the administration, and the administrators decided they would surrender to this small group rather than risk a public fuss or possible pickets at the performances, or complaints at school board meetings, and on and on. Fortunately, in the Chicago instance, other parents and the students then rose up and made another fuss, probably a larger fuss than the first group. In the end, the administrators got the publicity they didn't want, and the play went on.

Yes, schools have the right to control speech. But I don't think that was the issue here. I think the issue is administrators who caved in to a small group of phobic people rather than stand up for principles, such as the principle of having pre-approved a play - a play students had spent most of the school year preparing, after properly seeking and obtaining pre-approval. Frankly, what I see in the instances Strauss presented is administrative cowardice.

The popularity of the plays, or that they won awards or, in the case of Chicago, became a popular movie, is irrelevant to me. I saw Chicago, and didn't like it at all. That's not the point.

The point is whether administrators will stand up to small, vocal pressure groups when they have previously given approval for a performance, a club, an after-school program, a class plan, or anything else at the school - or whether they will cave when people with a particular political or religiously-based agenda make a fuss.

Posted by: vklip1 | November 7, 2009 7:37 AM | Report abuse

It's a show. An incredibly well done, well-received show. It requires practice, hard work, and creative talent from students. Those are good things last time I checked.

Yes, it involves sex, crime, and other things that are parts of the real world, but I hate to tell you that high schoolers know about such things. Why not let them do a show that raises the issue and then talk about it, rather than censor it and keep it as a forbidden topic?

Posted by: anon82 | November 9, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

I am sure glad my kid is not in your school.
You might be happier teaching in China, where you can send offending students to a re-education camp or perhaps even give them a bullet in the back of the head.
You have the power to curtail speech, that doesn't mean you have the right.

Posted by: mimelc | November 9, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse

"Freedom of Speech". Sadly, as a college instructor, my students frequently quote this freedom as a right to insult and be hurtful to other students while giving class speeches.

Somehow, along the way, a number of today's youth have failed to develop a moral compass. School administrators educating students on the proper context of language and behavior is not a bad thing. For youth without a family or spiritual guidance, schools seem to be the last institution to offer civil guidance so we can all get along.

Posted by: hessjack | November 9, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

The Supreme Court also said a man wasn't a man and they also said that interning Japanese Americans during WWII was ok. Both were wrong. As is the current Court position on school speech. The First Amendment does not read "Congress shall make no law...except in schools."

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | November 9, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Students need to learn to deal with speech that is "abusive, disrespectful, inappropriate, cruel, hostile, hurtful or hateful" in their daily lives outside of school. Creating a cocoon for "learning" may have aesthetic value but it fails the students. Censorship in our schools has failed to rid our society of things we despise; as such, doubling down makes little sense.

Posted by: jjhare | November 10, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

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