Guidelines created balancing student free speech and anti-bullying law

The American Jewish Committee has drafted a set of guidelines contained in an 11-page pamphlet entitled Harassment, Bullying and Free Expression: Guidelines for Free and Safe Public Schools,”  The guidelines have received a broad consensus coalition including groups such as the American Association of School Administrators, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the Religion Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The pamphlet is an attempt to provide some clarity on an issue that has been a thorn in the side of schools for some time. In recent years, a broad range of educational institutions have been pushing the Supreme Court to take up a free speech in school case. Administrators correctly argue that the outdated Tinker standard no longer works in the social media/bullying age. As quoted by the Huffington Post, Francisco Negron, the National School Boards Association general counsel, “The pamphlet can fill a need the judicial system has not.”

Negron is further quoted as saying the 11-page pamphlet outlines the difference between “what constitutes a personal attack, and the expression of an idea.” Based on current law governing free speech in schools, the guidelines attempt to balance the sometime competing interests of free speech and anti-bullying policy.

The guidelines offer a balanced perspective that seeks to foster the healthy expression of ideas while disallowing personal attacks against individual students and/or student groups.

One important sentence reads…

Words that convey ideas are one thing: words that are used as assault weapons quite another.

Other important excerpts include…

• …schools should consider incorporating proactive measures as part of their response, apart from discipline and suppression of speech.
• Public schools should not be satisfied with merely avoiding legal liability for harassment or bullying.
• Schools themselves are free to communicate in a non-coercive way their own views on subjects that generate controversy in the community…

As would be expected from guidelines endorsed by such a broad spectrum of groups, the core message of these suggestions is one of education and tolerance. The central message is for administrators to allow political speech, but to deal with speech directed toward individuals or speech which is likely to cause substantial disruption on campus.