Combat bullying, but protect religious speech

After years of benign neglect – neglect that was anything but benign for the victims – bullying has finally moved … Continued

After years of benign neglect – neglect that was anything but benign for the victims – bullying has finally moved to the top of the school climate agenda.

Today, 49 states and the District of Columbia have anti-bullying laws in place (Montana is the one state without an anti-bullying law). The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidance on how schools can fight bullying and harassment. And many local school districts are moving vigorously to address a serious and widespread problem.

But as school officials act to stop bullying, they need to know when and where to draw the line on student expression. The challenge is to stop bullies without overreacting by censoring students’ protected religious and political speech.

It goes without saying that creating and sustaining a safe learning environment is job one for school administrators. But how can public schools balance the need for school safety with a commitment to freedom of expression?

To help answer this question, a coalition of 17 education and religious groups released guidelines on May 22 designed to help public schools combat bullying and harassment while simultaneously upholding the rights of students to free speech and free exercise of religion under the First Amendment.

“Harassment, Bullying and Freedom of Expression: Guidelines for Free and Safe Public Schools” has been endorsed by diverse religious voices such as the Christian Legal Society, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Hindu American Foundation as well as leading educational associations, including the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators and the National Association of State Boards of Education. (A full list of endorsers and the text of the guide are available at www.religiousfreedomeducation.org)

My own organization, the First Amendment Center’s Religious Freedom Education Project, worked closely with the American Jewish Committee over the past year to produce the document.

As the guidelines explain, much harassment and bullying is physical, “targeting an individual student or classes of students for unwanted touching, bodily assault or threats of violence.” Prohibiting such actions in schools raises no First Amendment concerns.

But bullying can also be verbal, creating a hostile school climate. Following current law, the guidelines draw a distinction between student speech that expresses an idea, including religious and political views, and student speech that is intended to cause (or school officials demonstrate is likely to cause) emotional or psychological harm to the listener. The former is, in most circumstances, protected speech, but the latter may and should be stopped.

As the guide puts it, “Words that convey ideas are one thing; words that are used as assault weapons quite another.”

Although student speech about religious and political issues receives a high level of protection under the First Amendment, such speech can also be controversial, unpopular and offensive to some listeners.

To cite an example mentioned in the guidelines: One student may wear a “Gay? fine by me” T-shirt to express support for gay rights, and another student may wear a “be happy, not gay” T-shirt to express an opposing viewpoint.

Students on each side may be tempted to label the views of the other side “harassment or bullying” and demand that the school censor the speech.

But as the guide explains, student speech conveying religious or political ideas is protected by the First Amendment and therefore “may not be the basis for disciplinary action absent a showing of substantial disruption (or likely disruption) or a violation of another student’s legal rights.”

Rather than shutting down student speech about politics and religion, schools should help students master the skills of civil discourse, including the skill of listening to speech with which one profoundly disagrees.

Censorship doesn’t make schools safer. On the contrary, suppressing speech only deepens divisions and fuels intolerance.

To prepare students for citizenship in a pluralistic democracy that values the First Amendment, schools must be places that are both safe and free.

A safe school is free of bullying and harassment – and a free school is safe for student speech, including speech about issues that divide us.


Charles C. Haynes

is senior scholar at the

Freedom Forum First Amendment Center

and director of the

Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum

in Washington.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    Talk about projection. So the bullies are usually religiously or politically active students? According to the article, “…words that are used as assault weapons…” pretty much covers a HUGE number of posts by atheists on this and other sites.

  • SODDI

    It isn’t bullying when you FIGHT BACK against a bully.

  • Catken1

    Please, give me one time when an atheist has told you that you deserve to burn in agony forever and ever in unimaginable pain for believing as you do, and that while you do, they will be up being pampered by, and kissing the rear of, your torturer.

    Oh, wait, that’s what Christians tell atheists. Please forgive me if a bit of “you’re foolish” commentary in response seems comparatively minor.

    But then, fundamentalist Christians are the ones who can attack gay people’s families, marriages, and kids, and then whine that they’re being PERSECUTED and OPPRESSED because gay people have the gall to not respect Christians’ right to tell them what to do and how to live.

  • SODDI

    Don’t forget christians wanting to lock gays up in concentration camps, like Mike Huckabee does.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    Soddi, I think you should wrap that hat of yours in tin foil.

    Catken1, if you choose to listen only to anecdotal stories from your apparently small cloister of sources, then you are doomed to continue seeing the world through the lenses of your stereotypes.

  • Catken1

    Yes, of course, because the belief in Hell and the need to be Christian to avoid it is only “anecdotal” and held only by a “small cloister” of Christians, right?

    It’s probably true that most Christians either ignore the belief or don’t think much about how horrible it is, and what it says about their god. But it’s hardly a fringe idea – it’s rather central to the faith.

    And I’ve seen any number of Christians get all hissy-whiny and offended because gay people don’t show them enough “respect” and “tolerance” for their beliefs that gay people don’t deserve marriages and families. (“Tolerance” not being defined as “I accept that you have a right to hold your belief and speak it,” but as “I accept that you have a right to impose your belief on my family.”)

  • Catken1

    Besides which, you didn’t even cite any anecdotes, just an assertion that atheists were regularly MEAN to you (on a modestly-censored comment board, between adults, where you have chosen to be – not to a vulnerable teenager or child in a school they are required to attend).

  • LoyalReader

    It’s interesting that both SODDI and Catken1 chose to vent against Christians rather than address the subject of the article which was bullying and the use of speech codes. I guess it’s more satisfying to rant than comment on a complex issue.

    I think the author of the article has a good point, but he is a bit too oblique in making it.

  • Catken1

    “It’s interesting that both SODDI and Catken1 chose to vent against Christians rather than address the subject of the article which was bullying and the use of speech codes. ”

    I was responding directly to AgentFoxMulder’s assumption that it was atheists, not Christians and other religious sorts, who were the “bullies”.

    “As far as hell is concerned, I suggest to you that Christians wrestle with this subject quite a bit, as they do with many doctrines found in the scriptures. That is part of the walk of faith.”

    Many do. But I’ve met more than my share who simply justify, excuse, and/or feel smug about being among the “saved”, rather than really asking themselves what the belief says about their God, or them.

    “Am I not allowed to say that I believe God warns us against that lifestyle for good reason?”

    On a public comment board, certainly.

    “That is my opinion and has at least as much weight as your opinion to the contrary.”

    No. It has as much right to be spoken, but there is no actual rational evidence behind it other than “my holy book says so.” If you disagree, provide some. (And if your evidence includes AIDS, please tell me why then the lesbian lifestyle is not therefore clearly shown to be God’s favorite?)

    But the article isn’t about that, anyway. We’re talking about bullying of children. Would you want your child constantly harassed in the school they must attend, by a Muslim child on the grounds that the Muslim child believes that God doesn’t like the idolatrous Christian lifestyle (it is idolatry, in Islam, to worship Jesus as God)?

    And atheists making what you consider to be bullying comments on a public web site, to other adults (and are you going to provide actual examples, or just make unsubstantiated accusations, btw?) are not comparable to kids getting beaten up, abused, stolen from, mocked, or having death threats sent to them, because they are gay, or not Christian, or in some other way threatening to the religious majority. If you see any credible examples of

  • dcrswm

    Freedom of speech in schools has always been a touchy subject. Typically the right ends when the speech interferes with the schools ability to teach. For instance, a black arm band is allowed (an effort to protest something see Tinker v. Des Moines) as it does not prevent the school from operating as it normally would. It has long been held that speech that is disruptive, but not considered to be “fighting words” is not allowed if it violates the rules of the school, regardless of if it is regilious or not.

  • GeniusPhx

    the first amendment gives us freedom OF religion, but also freedom FROM religion. Our founding fathers believed Christianity was based on myth, fable, and superstition. Dont try to sell me a myth and I wont have to tell you how stupid you are.

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