A subject that has been widely discussed recently, especially in schools, is freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is the constitutional right to avoid governmental restrictions regarding speech. This refers to the First Amendment, which protects the right to express personal thoughts and ideas (Farlex, n.d.). However, it is important to mention that there are certain nuances that the Bill of Rights does not cover. Limited speech is one that is not protected by the constitution. Some examples are fraud, speech that incites unlawful behavior, defamation, and obscenity (United States Courts, n.d.). Thus, it is inevitable that speech can never be entirely free due to the possible adverse outcomes that may result if an individual is predisposed to inciting violence through words.
Schools, both private and public, are not limited to only using the federal guidelines. Every educational institution has a different code of conduct that applies to every student and employee. While it is reasonable that a school protects its attendees by implementing specific rules in regard to speech, it is debatable whether the students can be limited in their personal lives. This includes social media posts, verbal altercations, and other possible situations in which the school is not directly involved. While schools can protect their reputation by limiting offensive speech in class or on campuses, preventing someone from expressing their opinion outside the academic environment can be a dangerous practice.
There are several controversies around the topic of free speech. An example of expression protected by the constitution is when schools invite different political speakers to present discourses for the students, which is not endorsed and is often protested by students (Herbeck, 2018). It is certain that all individuals have different political preferences, but being able to listen to someone else’s opinion is an excellent way of broadening one’s overview of a topic. Free speech also relates to the ability of students to make political remarks that others do not align with, which is also speech protected by law. Another example of protected expression is the ability to criticize, which is an essential driving factor for political and organizational change.
A student who is able to objectively express negative opinions in regard to the school, teachers, program, or certain guidelines is more likely to contribute to a possible positive change within the institution. An example is Brandi Levy’s case against the Mahanoy Area School District. The student used explicit language when criticizing the school after being denied from joining the varsity team, which is why Levy got suspended (BBC, 2021). The court concluded that schools might punish behavior related to harassment or bullying. However, they cannot do it for disruptive speech intended to criticize the school or the cheerleading team in particular, which is why Levy won the case. Thus, this is an example of when schools overstep their boundaries and try to limit protected speech.
On the other hand, some instances in which schools can limit language are when students deliberately bully, defame, spread false information, and harass people either online or in real life. Such types of behaviors are not covered by the First Amendment, which is why schools are legally able to take action towards limiting them. For example, an article retrieved from NY Daily News refers to a student being expelled due to the posts in which racial slurs and anti-Asian rhetoric were found (McShane, 2017). In this instance, such comments cannot be classified as protected speech, and the school had the right to get involved. Another example would be the student’s verbal or written communication intended to spread false information. This, again, is not speech that is protected by the constitution, which is why school authorities are entitled to take action.
Mohawk Valley Community College Speech Policy
The Mohawk Valley Community College has specific guidelines when it comes to speech in school, addressed on the school on social media and on campuses. However, several rules apply to students even outside the college itself. For example, the college’s official website specified the aim to promote complete freedom based on the current law (Mohawk Valley Community College, 2016). Nonetheless, as mentioned prior, specific speech can be limited as it is not covered in the First Amendment. For example, the college encourages students to report acts of discrimination or harassment towards them or other students (Mohawk Valley Community College, n.d.a).
Furthermore, the Mohawk Valley Community College website has information in regards to the illegality of using social media to defame, harass, cause emotional distress, or intimidate someone (Mohawk Valley Community College, n.d.b). The classification is, however, not mentioned by the school authorities.
In this instance, it is unclear how emotional distress is measured, whether it is viewed as a subjective opinion of the victim, and what can be classified as this particular offense. For example, a student that openly supports a political party, speaker, or public opinion may cause emotional distress to someone with a different viewpoint but is still protected by the law. Oleksiyenko and Jackson (2020) mention that, oftentimes, facts and objective data can be classified as offensive speech. Thus, the school has to remain unbiased and objective regarding the constitutional right of a person to express an opinion.
It is certain that specific behaviors cannot be promoted or left unaddressed by school authorities. Furthermore, when students choose to file complaints in regard to someone saying or posting something they find offensive, those should be investigated. In case the complaint is reasonable, and the victim has been truthful about the second party either threatening, harassing, bullying, or defaming them outside the school setting, measures shall be taken. In such instances, it is essential to pay attention to the situation and analyze the circumstances before taking action. However, as mentioned before, not all speech that some classify as offensive can be limited.
This is primarily caused by an individual’s subjective overview and beliefs. Thus, causing someone emotional distress cannot be measured or classified as an offense at all times. Instead, it is essential to analyze the context relevant to the situation. In case the speech contains racist, homophobic, or any other terminology aimed toward the attack of a person based on character, it cannot be endorsed by schools. However, if someone disagrees with an opinion, supports an unpopular overview, or states facts that some may find offensive, such speech cannot be restricted. There is a simple strategy that schools can use to avoid any kind of interaction problems within their environment. A proficient solution would be basing actions on constitutional rights and limitations since these guidelines prohibit unlawful expression and allow liberties that each American has.
There are limitations when it comes to speech that is considered unprotected, which is why the First Amendment does not cover all types of expression. Schools have the right to implement guidelines for speech in class, on campus, and on social media if the parties speak in the name of the institution or use the college’s social media. However, schools cannot disregard the constitutional right that allows individuals to speak their minds. Thus, the only restricted speech that students can be punished for is one aimed at harassing, defaming, discriminating, and bullying someone. In other cases, schools do not have the authority to limit or suppress someone’s verbalized point of view.
BBC. (2021). US cheerleader wins free speech case against her former school. BBC News. Web.
Farlex. (n.d.). Freedom of speech. The Free Dictionary. Web.
Herbeck, D. A. (2018). Freedom of speech and the communication discipline: Defending the value of low-value speech. Communication Education, 67(2), 245–253. Web.
McShane, L. (2021). Westchester Catholic High School defends decision to expel teen student in court, citing racist online posts. NYDailyNews. Web.
Mohawk Valley Community College (n.d.a). Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy and Procedures. Web.
Mohawk Valley Community College (2016). Board Policies. Web.
Mohawk Valley Community College (n.d.b). Code of Conduct. Web.
Oleksiyenko, A. V., & Jackson, L. (2020). Freedom of speech, freedom to teach, freedom to learn: The crisis of higher education in the post-truth ERA. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 53(11), 1057–1062. Web.
United States Courts. (n.d.). What does free speech mean? Web.