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?
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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.
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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.


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