Guidelines offer “teachable moment” for tough First Amendment issues

A coalition that includes NSBA and 16 other education, religious, and civil liberties groups has released new guidelines for school districts to combat harassment and bullying while upholding student’s First Amendment rights to express views that may be upsetting to others.

“It is important to distinguish between speech that expresses an idea, including religious or political viewpoints — even ideas some find offensive — and speech that is intended to cause, or school officials demonstrate is likely to cause, emotional or psychological harm to the listener,” says Harassment, Bullying and Free Expression: Guidelines for Free and Safe Public Schools. “Words that convey ideas are one thing; words that are used as assault weapons are quite another.”

Simply put: The former is protected by the First Amendment, the latter is not. But while that principle may seem simple in the abstract, it is anything but straightforward in the real world.  Indeed, as NSBA General Counsel Francisco M. Negrón Jr. said Tuesday at a news conference in Washington, both the U.S. Department of Education and the courts have struggled with this issue.

While the guide “relies on our contemporary understanding of the state of the law, it is not of itself a legal document,” Negrón said. “To the contrary, it is more of a policy guide that roots itself in the best interests of students.  In this context, it means taking the natural tension between the right to be safe and secure and the right to freely express one’s self and identifying the teachable moment that makes sense for students. “ 

The project was organized by the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Freedom Education Project  Education Project and endorsed by NSBA along with American Association of School Administrators; ASCD; Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School; Christian Educators Association International; Christian Legal Society; Hindu American Foundation; Islamic Networks Group and its affiliates; Islamic Society of North America; Muslim Public Affairs Council; National Association of Evangelicals; National Association of State Boards of Education; National Council for the Social Studies; Religion Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.  

According to the guidelines, students should be able to attend public schools where they are free to share their views and engage in discussions about religious and political differences while simultaneously attending safe schools that prohibit discrimination, bullying, and harassment.  

Negrón noted: “This guidance framework will allow educators and schools not to simply legislate prohibitions of conduct or speech or ideas, but to engage students about the importance of civil discourse, respect for the safety and rights of others and teach the value of thoughtful discussion particularly about very deeply held personal views and beliefs.“

Lawrence Hardy|May 22nd, 2012|Categories: Bullying, Discipline, Diversity, Religion, School Law|Tags: , |

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