NEW JERSEY — The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that public schools can be held responsible for stopping severe instances of student-on-student harassment, creating a loophole that could allow administrators to censor student media, advocates say.
The Feb. 21 decision, which the opinion says is based on the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, states that schools do not have to eliminate all types of discrimination, but could be held liable for bullying and harassment by students if it knew about a “hostile educational environment” without reasonably trying to stop it.
“Students in the classroom are entitled to no less protection from unlawful discrimination and harassment than their adult counterparts in the workplace,” the opinion says.
“We do not suggest, however, that isolated schoolyard insults or classroom taunts” would be enough to justify legal action, the decision said.
The Court remanded the case back to the state Division of Civil Rights for a reassessment of the facts.
Although the decision was intended to help bullied students, “it creates a really fine line that it wants schools to walk” and could increase the likelihood administrators in New Jersey will resort to censoring student media content that criticizes other students out of fear that they could be held liable for a hostile educational environment, said Adam Goldstein, SPLC attorney advocate.
“Any school official who uses this to censor is legally in the wrong,” Goldstein said.
The unanimous decision came in the case L.W. v. Toms River Regional Schools Board of Education, in which Louis White, a former Toms River Regional Schools student, said he was attacked with homophobic slurs from the time he was in fourth grade until high school.
White, who is now 21, agreed to disclose his identity after the decision was handed down, according to The Star-Ledger, a newspaper in Newark, N.J. He told the newspaper that the case “has made me stronger, so it was definitely worth it in the end.”
According to the decision, White was ridiculed almost every day until the eighth grade, but because he was physically attacked twice during his freshman year of high school, the district allowed him to leave and subsidized his enrollment elsewhere.
“It wasn’t right for me to go through that,” White told The Star-Ledger. “I just felt like things needed to change at my school and it branched out from there to include other schools statewide.”
Ed Barocas, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said while the organization would continue to support student expression, students should not be subjected to chronic bullying at school.
“The ACLU believes in protecting the right of students to express their views, even views that are controversial or offensive,” he said. “However, speech stops being just speech when it targets a particular individual, and when it forms a pattern of behavior that interferes with a student’s ability to exercise his or her right to participate fully in student life.”
By Jared Taylor, SPLC staff writer