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!
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different. http://jd.fo/p57AB
  • J.J. Goldberg doesn't usually respond to his critics. But this time, he just had to make an exception.
  • 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.