Monday, December 14, 2009

Freedom of Speech vs. Bullying

This decision sounds wrong.

One student made a youtube video denouncing another girl as a spoiled brat and a slut.

The victim, crying, complained to a teacher. The school took it up and had the offender suspended for two days.

The case was brought to a judge, who wrote the following:
“To allow the school to cast this wide a net and suspend a student simply because another student takes offense to their speech, without any evidence that such speech caused a substantial disruption of the school’s activities, runs afoul [of the law],’’ judge Stephen V. Wilson wrote in a 60-page opinion.

“The court cannot uphold school discipline of student speech simply because young persons are unpredictable or immature, or because, in general, teenagers are emotionally fragile and may often fight over hurtful comments,’’ he wrote.

That sounds well and good. But this isn't merely "taking offense" by one student. This is meant to attack and humiliate another student. And no one is preventing the bullying classmate from posting more screeds on the Internet. What the school is doing is making a decision regarding how students are to treat one another. Stepping outside those bounds is grounds for suspension.

I'm going to guess the judge has never been a teacher. Keeping discipline in the classroom can be difficult. The school has a right and a responsibility to keep the classroom an open and peaceful forum where every student feels welcome. This judge has now decided that schools don't have that right. In other words, even if the school knows that cruel bullying is going on, the school can't do anything about it because that would be infringing on the bully's right to be cruel.

I've said it before and I know I'll say it again: the rules are designed to protect bullies. That's because bullies are the ones with the aggressive natures that get them in to the position where they can make rules.

This situation is no different from many others throughout schools in North America.

h/t to Freddy Stubbs democratic underground.

Recommend this PostProgressive Bloggers


Skinny Dipper said...

My guess was that the judge limited how much power a school has beyond the physical school boundaries. If one kid picks on another through YouTube, Facebook, or on the street, the judge has declared that schools do not have the authority to deal with students for non-school related activities. If the kids are not at school, on a school bus, or on a school sanctioned field trip or event, the schools are limited in disciplining the students.

What happens if a kid makes a negative comment about a fellow student attending the same school? A different school? A different school board (public or Catholic)? Can a school suspend that kid in each one of these situations?

Dr.Dawg said...

The parents of the bully should be sued. That will stop the nonsense quickly.

Greg said...

Re: suing the parents.

My admittedly pop-culture understanding of U.S. law is that the epithet "slut" is enough to elicit cash.

But would that fix the next kid who is more careful about content?

@SD: I have trouble with the idea that a bully is permitted to ruin a child's classroom experience simply by bullying off school grounds. If the bully's behaviour off school grounds has an intimidating effect within the classroom, that has to be fixed. Otherwise the classroom environment is poisoned.

So, yes, I do think the school can punish students for classroom-affecting behaviour that occurs off school grounds.

Skinny Dipper said...

Hi Greg,

Trust me. I do not want to see bullying anywhere. I didn't realized until after I posted my comment that this was an American case. I'm not sure how a judge would rule in Canada. I would guess that there would be more room for a Canadian school or board to impose sanctions on indirect school related activities.

As a teacher, I am a professional teacher 24 hours per day. That means that I cannot be hanging around students who may be smoking off school property. A debate may occur if I am in loco parentis if I demand that any student (mine or not) extinguish or give me their remaining cigarettes. If the student refuses, I am still required to remove myself from the situation or else I would be contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

For the court case, the judge decided that the school went beyond its powers in acting in loco parentis. I think the US courts would recommend that the bully or parents be sued for libel, slander, or defamation of character. A Canadian court may give more leeway if a school can prove that it is acting in loco parentis.

Greg said...

I don't know how a Canadian school would handle it. We're so much more liberal and namby-pamby (so I'm told).

I'd like to believe, after watching Columbine and then Carine-Wilson, we'd have learned to nip things in the bud. Part of the responsibility of a school is to keep children safe. An environment laden with bullying and humiliated people is not safe ... not even for the bullies.