The Constitution of the United States of America guarantees each citizen freedom of speech. This first amendment allows individuals to express ideas and opinions others oppose without fear of imprisonment or death. But when do we draw the line? Should this given right allow us a free pass to condemn, judge, and abuse others? Here is how to distinguish between school bullying and free speech.
Applying Free Speech to Students
The 1960s brought the Supreme Court into students’ rights of expression on school property. The precedent set by the first ruling in 1969 has remained the foundation for the application of the first amendment to the American school system.
School Bullying and Free Speech: The Supreme Court
At what point does free speech become a bullying behaviour? A large grey area appears when this question comes up. The precedents below shed some light on students’ rights.
The Tinker Standard (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, 1969)
Students have the right to free expression unless they pose a threat to the learning environment, or invade the rights, of other students. Denying students freedom of expression simply because administrators do not like it is a violation of students’ first amendment rights.
The Fraser Standard (Bethel School District. No. 403 v. Fraser, 1986)
The Supreme Court rules in favour of the Bethel School District, allowing school officials the right to protect students from vulgar and offensive language.
The Hazelwood Standard (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988)
The Supreme Court decides censorship of student speech, when representing the learning institution and its high standards, is permissible. The ruling includes the choice of school productions, campaign speeches and other supervised activities. However, the Court disallows the censorship of speech in non-educational activities performed on school property.
Federal anti-bullying laws do not exist in the United States, but when the behaviour becomes of sexual or racial in nature, the federal government considers it harassment. Schools must report instances of harassment to authorities.
New anti-bullying legislation in Canada gives more severe penalties to those found bullying – incarceration being a potential option. Again, the charges will be called harassment. The new law’s language and wording can be seen to conflict with the boundaries of free speech, and Canadian citizens have called for clarifications on this. Can citizens go to prison for expressing an idea that another wrongfully interprets as a personal attack?
Zero-tolerance policies exist in many schools, but laws referring to bullies rarely appear in state ordinances. Harassment, discrimination and violations of civil rights exist to stop the intimidating acts in workplaces and public places.
Put concisely, a student’s freedom of speech ends when the invasion of another student’s right to an education without interference begins.
The fine line separating freedom of speech and verbal bullying comes under scrutiny after the out-of-court settlement of the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s harassment lawsuits. The settlement mandated changes in the school’s policies to end the behaviour.
A few guidelines are available to deal with this issue of where free speech and bullying behaviours intersect, and how to distinguish one from the other.
American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia (ACLUV)
In an attempt to find the point where opinion turns into abuse, the ACLUV issued these criteria to help define the distinction between bullying and free speech.
- The definition must not allow for stepping over the line because no clear criteria are set to protect students from bullies.
- The definition must not go so far overboard as to allow teachers the power to take free speech away from students.
- The word “speech” must not appear in the definition unless the speech crosses into brutality or becomes so heinous it hurts or hinders another student’s ability to receive an education.
Guidelines for Free and Safe Public Schools
There is a difference between a personal attack and expressing an idea. Students must learn how to open lines of communications and productively discuss differences.
Students who express ideas and opinions in open forums tend to approach diversity more politely. Conversation flows easier when children ask questions, express fears and discuss stereotypes with their peers in a controlled setting.
We also addressed the opinion that public schools may not be able to promote free speech while protecting others from bullies. Opening the way for direct, productive communication at a primary level introduces diversity and teamwork early in life.
Without guidelines in place, teachers ignore bullying activities to avoid violating students’ rights. When the line is crossed, we suggest you do a speech on the consequences of bullying.
The Facts on Teens and Suicide
Over 92-million results appear when the sentence, ‘Student commits suicide after bullied at school’ is googled. Each result does not represent one child, thank goodness, however they do reflect an enormous bullying problem in public schools.
- 4,400 young people commit suicide each year.
- At least 2,200 suicides are related to bullying.
- Bullied teens are two to nine per cent more likely to commit suicide.
- Girls between ten and fourteen years old are at the highest risk.
- In the United States, more than 160,000 students stay home from school each day to avoid bullies.
School Bullying and Free Speech: What Is the Answer?
Students have the right to express their ideas and opinions openly. Students also have the right to an education without interference.
The students and teachers in Wisconsin’s Anoka-Hennepin School District now have the most extensive anti-bullying network in the United States. The district adopted a model for all schools to follow. Stop bullies while keeping the students’ rights intact.
Spread the word about the difference between school bullying and free speech, and maybe sit with your friends to craft some bullying speeches to educate others around you. Bullying speeches are a great tool for creating awareness about bullying.
Need help with your bullying speeches? Contact us and we will help.