By David L. Hudson Jr., First Amendment Scholar
Some school officials have implemented speech codes, arguing that they help to ensure a safe learning environment by prohibiting students from engaging in harassing speech or so-called hate speech. However, critics contend that some of the policies go too far and prohibit protected speech. A federal appeals court based in Pennsylvania struck down an anti-harassment policy for precisely that reason.
Following the Columbine tragedy, it was reported that other, and particularly more popular, students ridiculed the two shooters. In response, some schools have targeted bullying. In 2001, Colorado passed a law requiring boards of education to adopt “a specific policy concerning bullying prevention and education.” Other states have considered similar legislation. It remains to be seen whether these policies will be applied to speech that should be protected.
Sometimes it isn’t students’ speech but their choice of symbols that is interpreted by school officials as harassing or hateful. There is perhaps no symbol more controversial in the public schools than the Confederate flag, which supporters say is merely a symbol of heritage, but critics charge is a symbol of hate.
Many students have been suspended for wearing such garb or even for drawing pictures of the flag in class.