Jewish Groups Split on School Bullying

AJC, ADL Balance Free Speech With Preventing Harassment

Free Speech Goes to School: Anti-gay religious demonstrators rally outside a school, prompting outrage in response. When does free speech cross the line into harassment or even bullying?
getty images
Free Speech Goes to School: Anti-gay religious demonstrators rally outside a school, prompting outrage in response. When does free speech cross the line into harassment or even bullying?

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published June 06, 2012, issue of June 15, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Homosexuality is shameful” could cause a public school student to be disciplined for offending classmates, federal courts have ruled.

But religious students say they should be free to express their beliefs — even if they are homophobic, racist or otherwise offensive — without being punished, especially in a public school.

Drawing the line between free speech or religious expression on the one hand and behavior that could be considered harassment or even bullying on the other is a growing problem for public schools nationwide.

The thorny dispute — one that potentially affects millions of students from coast to coast — has now drawn in two major national Jewish organizations with starkly different approaches to the matter.

A new report, co-produced by the American Jewish Committee, emphasizes the need for school officials to tread carefully when disciplining students over messages that could be considered protected speech.

The Anti-Defamation League countered by slamming the AJC report, noting that schools should first and foremost focus on preventing bullying, which it says almost always involves physical or verbal targeting of vulnerable students.

The 11-page AJC report, a joint project with the First Amendment Center, was released in late May with backing from religious and education groups. Notably, it lacks the endorsement of organizations representing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, who are often the targets of school bullying.

It presents a series of guidelines for elementary and secondary school leaders seeking to quash bullying while upholding free speech. The report cautions teachers against disciplining students who engage in offensive speech that conveys an idea rather than speech meant to harm. In the former case, teachers should ask students to stop the speech rather than punish them outright.

“Schools should teach students that, as a general matter, there is no right to be free of speech one does not like, whether in school or elsewhere,” it said.

For example, although courts ruled that the “Homosexuality is shameful” slogan crosses the line into harassment, others decided that a student should not be punished for a shirt proclaiming, “Be happy, not gay.”

Marc Stern, the AJC’s general counsel, said the report was not meant to provide guidance on clear-cut harassment cases.

“Words that convey ideas are one thing; words that are used as assault weapons are another,” the report said.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.