Groups release new guidelines on bullying, free speech — but some have concerns

After a year and a half of collaborating and drafting, “Harassment, Bullying and Free Expression,” a set of guidelines geared toward free and safe public schools, were released at a press conference Tuesday.

The guide distinguishes between free speech and harassment. Schools do have the right to punish students for physical violence, but verbal harassment is more challenging to identify and discipline, according to the guidelines.

Specific scenarios, such as students wearing a Confederate flag or pro-life T-shirt, are provided as examples of issues that may arise. Teachers are encouraged to use discipline as a last resort in dealing with these kinds of situations, unless the speech becomes disruptive or harassing. The goal is to show students how to both listen to views that they don’t agree with, and also to be able to communicate their own viewpoints in an effective, respectful way.

A total of 17 education, religion and civil liberties groups endorsed the guidelines, which are focused on fostering free speech in the public school setting while avoiding harassment and bullying. Conversations should be able to take place in a civil, safe, and respectful manner, said Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project.

“Schools are safer when they are freer,” Haynes said. “When we take freedom seriously, we create a safer environment. When we overreact and try to shut down speech, maybe out of a good motive, we send all kinds of things underground, we make people angry, we polarize people. And students don’t respond well to being told they can’t express what they believe.”

One key thing that teachers need to take away and pass on to students is that expressing disagreement in a conversation is not the same thing as a personal attack, said Marc Stern, attorney at the American Jewish Committee and head drafter of the policy guide.

The problem in dealing with free speech disagreements in the public school setting is that there are no court cases telling schools exactly how to do so, the National School Boards Association’s Francisco Negron said. These guidelines should be used as suggestions on how to deal with these controversies, but is not a legal document.

“There is certainly a need for the people on the free speech side of the aisle and the people on the school-discipline side of the aisle, to get together and try to find common ground,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

The SPLC is not among the organizations that endorsed the guidelines.

“On the positive side, it’s really important to see school administrators actually admitting that their censorship authority has limits,” LoMonte said. “That’s an attitude we haven’t seen before.”

Although these guidelines are a step in the right direction, we should not be content with them as final resolution, LoMonte said.

“I think my main concern is there is too much concession of authority over off-campus speech,” he said. “What it’s doing is taking some of the bad court rulings we’ve seen recently, in social networking cases, and putting them into policy.”

The policy takes the Supreme Court’s ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines and applies it beyond the school setting, to off-campus speech such as that on social networks, LoMonte said.

“That’s just way too much authority over what students do in their private lives,” he said.

Those prompting the new guidelines said is to take controversial moments and turn them into learning opportunities that will benefit students.

“What we hope to accomplish here is to remind schools that public schools particularly are laboratories for democracy, and freedom, and they are, within bounds, opportunities for students to learn how to use their free speech and their freedom of religion well so that when they graduate… they know how to do it in ways that don’t hurt others, that don’t attack, but are expressing their views,” Haynes said.