Sunday, March 11, 2007

A few thoughts on student speech

I've been meaning to write this post for some time, but I keep getting distracted. The recent decision to vacate Harper v. Poway Unified School District reminded me that I still hadn't done so.

I do find it amusing that student speech has such a wide variety of detractors and advocates. The gruff conservative who affirms the right of a school to bar the word vagina throws a hissy fit over a school that bans anti-gay t-shirts. The same liberal who supports the right of students to discuss atheism might get the vapors over students distributing religious pamphlets to other students.

That said, I don't disagree with Bethel's broad thesis that
The undoubted freedom to advocate unpopular and controversial views in schools and classrooms must be balanced against the society's countervailing interest in teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior. Even the most heated political discourse in a democratic society requires consideration for the personal sensibilities of the other participants and audiences.
But I'm very hesitant to allow Bethel's holding that schools may restrict students from certain "modes of expression" (there, sexual innuendo used for the purpose of titillating other students) to swamp its apparent protection of the ability to advocate for certain ideas. What is to happen when a particular idea, be it the wrongness of homosexuality or the superiority of the high-IQ set, is deemed offensive and socially inappropriate? Without vigorous protection for students' First Amendment rights, expression of any idea so characterized could be banned. The highly parochial nature of locally-controlled school systems makes them particularly subject to exercising this sort of control. Thus the existence of both liberal and conservative pet cases in this area.

By allowing locally-controlled school districts broad authority to suppress student speech, we make it unlikely that students will hear the very kinds of ideas that they are least likely to hear elsewhere in their community. Schools should not be echo chambers. The purpose of schooling is to educate students and prepare them for a life in our society. Once attaining the age of majority, they are expected to exercise political and civil rights in an informed manner. My perception is also that one's school peers, now more than ever, are the primary social group for students; few students are exposed to people outside that set, and nearly all social interaction takes place in school or in after-school activities. By restricting students' ability to express themselves in school, we take away nearly all of their effective capacity to exercise their right to speak, and thus impede them from learning to exercise that right responsibly.

Students from schools in which the powers that be have restricted speech will be sheltered from exposure to peers with controversial points of view. This in turn makes it more difficult for those students to effectively analyze such viewpoints when they do encounter them. Without whetting, critical thinking skills cannot be sharpened. Thus, student speech restrictions may injure the student body as a whole in addition to suppressing particular students' dangerous ideas.

This is not to say that time, place and manner restrictions on student speech are not necessary for the educational mission of the public schools to be fulfilled; they are. But just as students have a right to pray in school, given that they do so at appropriate times, they should have a right to express themselves and their ideas. The school years are when many aspects of personal identity are formed. Preventing students from having discussions with their peers about political, social, or philosophical issues of import stifles them just when they should be forming a sense of their place in the world and their beliefs about it.
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