DISCUSSION: How “Free” Can Student Speech Be On School Campuses?

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A little more than a month into President Trump’s time in office, we’re seeing reports of upticks in both hate speech and protests on high school and college campuses. In the ten days following the election, almost 900 reports were made of harassment and intimidation, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, including incidents taking place at schools. The investigative journalism non-profit ProPublica even created a database, Documenting Hate, to collect reports of hate crimes and incidents of bias for use by journalists, researchers, and civil rights groups. Students are also organizing in huge numbers, mobilizing demonstrations and walk-outs across the country (and here in the Bay Area) to voice their views on issues including immigration, education, and civil rights.  

Among the most visible and violent campus-based unrest post-election took place last week at UC Berkeley. Protesters lit fires and damaged buildings, forcing the cancellation of a visit from right-wing writer Milo Yiannopoulos, who–among other things–outed a transgender student at another recent campus visit and has been barred from Twitter for violating anti-abuse policies. The events at UC Berkeley have renewed debates about the current state of both hate speech and free speech on campuses. For example, the LA Times editorial board said blocking Yiannopoulos’s appearance should “make supporters of free speech shiver,” while college students targeted by hate find that position ironic, saying they’re the ones who feel “more silenced than ever.”

So what does all this mean for speech on high school campuses? What supports can teachers, administrators, and students put in place to sustain open expression? What are the appropriate consequences for violation of school policies related to free speech, hate speech, bias, and harassment? In what ways are schools different from other public institutions, in terms of what’s required to maintain a safe and positive learning environment for all students? What are the special challenges faced by schools that pride themselves on being “open,” or those with students whose views span the political spectrum?

Discussion: Schools need to provide safe spaces and intellectual freedom for all students. How should they handle students’ free speech in today’s climate?

To respond to the Do Now, you can comment below or tweet your response. Be sure to begin your tweet with @KQEDEdspace and end it with #DoNowFreeSpeech and @youthradio.

Featured Media: Campus Life: Racial Injustice Edition (Youth Radio/Medium)

This story is a flashback to 2015, when Youth Radio collected dispatches from college students across the US amid protests of schools’ responses to racist incidents. Overt hate speech and threats triggered those protests. But one Harvard student, Soraya Shockley, said at the time that racial injustice on campus is often “hard to see…It’s systemic, it’s deep and it’s hidden.” This story provides a useful backdrop for thinking about the current debates surrounding free speech and hate speech on campuses, including high schools.


More Resources

  1. Documenting Hate, ProPublica: A new project collecting reports of hate and bias, aimed at producing a national database that will inform the work of journalists, researchers, and civil rights organizers.
  2. Do Students Still Have Free Speech in School? The Atlantic: Reporting on the state of free speech in public schools in digital times.
  3. Student Press Law Center: “The Student Press Law Center is an advocate for student First Amendment rights, for freedom of online speech, and for open government on campus. The SPLC provides information, training and legal assistance at no charge to student journalists and the educators who work with them.”
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