When does freedom of speech cross the line on a school campus? As society grows ever more polarized and controversial statements quickly go viral on social media, school leaders are increasingly confronting the boundaries.
A science fair project at McClatchy High School in Sacramento drew nationwide media attention last week when it attempted to link IQ and race to explain racial disparities in the campus’ high-achieving program. The project was on display for two days before school officials removed it, saying that it had disrupted the learning environment.
While students questioned why the project was allowed to remain for days despite complaints, some conservatives wondered if the student’s free speech rights were violated when it was taken down.
School district leaders in Sacramento County said that limiting speech within a campus environment has to be done on a case-by-case basis, but they overwhelmingly agreed the key test is whether it poses a threat to safety or disrupts the education of students.
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“Having a safe learning environment is our No. 1 responsibility,” said Alex Barrios, spokesman for Sacramento City Unified, which oversees McClatchy High School.
Superintendent Jorge Aguilar suggested in a video Saturday that the district determined the project was racially offensive and as such would not be tolerated. “Yes, we’ll respect freedom of speech, but we will also uphold our duty to limit speech that is likely to cause disruptions to our students,” he said.
The region’s largest district, Elk Grove Unified, expects teachers to exercise caution when deciding whether an issue is suitable for study or discussion in class, said spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton. While the district respects students’ rights to express ideas, teachers have to ensure that all sides of an issue are impartially represented with appropriate facts.
“The teacher shall not suppress any student’s view on the issue as long as its expression is not malicious or abusive toward others,” she said.
The rules for teachers are roughly the same as for students, but are slightly more nuanced because of the scope of employment, said Trent Allen, spokesman for San Juan Unified.
Last year, two high-profile incidents in the Sacramento region involved teachers.
Woody Hart, a history teacher at Sutter Middle School in Folsom, retired after being placed on administrative leave for displaying the Confederate flag, along with a Union flag, during a discussion of the Civil War. The family of an African American student previously filed a formal complaint that the teacher had made a lynching analogy when asked to explain equality. Hart said his lessons were taken out of context.
After being questioned about whether the district had infringed on the teacher’s free speech rights, then-Superintendent Deborah Bettencourt said in a statement, “Let me be clear: We do not want to limit the free speech of our teachers … Our expectations, however, are that teachers and staff will do this work using culturally appropriate strategies.”
Windy Pappas, a Woodland High School teacher, was escorted to the parking lot in October after she took a knee during the national anthem at a student rally. The incident spread on social media, with some people coming to her defense and others criticizing her actions.
Woodland Principal Karrie Sequeria told families at the time that teachers are expected to behave under the “Tinker Standard,” named for the 1969 landmark free-speech case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.
The standard allows students to express themselves freely so long as they do not cause a substantial disruption or impede the rights of others.
“While teachers do retain certain First Amendment rights in their capacity as an instructor, such rights are limited by Education Code and case law,” Sequeria said. “Their personal, political or religious beliefs are not appropriately expressed at school or in the classroom.
“Instead, the appropriate and legal instructional role is one of neutral facilitator – one who facilitates student discussion and intelligent analysis of current events,” she said.
Pappas returned to work after a few days.
UC Davis emeritus law professor Alan Brownstein said student free speech case law is inconsistent and often unclear. He cited Tinker and the 1988 case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier as the two U.S. Supreme Court cases that guide whether speech at schools is constitutionally protected.
The Hazelwood decision, which involved a student newspaper, found that school officials could limit student speech if it occurred during a school activity that was part of a learning experience.
Based on reports that the teacher reviewed the controversial McClatchy science project and that the science fair was school-sponsored, Hazelwood would most likely apply, Brownstein said.
That means the school district would have had more discretion to remove the project, he said.
But not everyone agrees when the laws apply, what constitutes a public forum or what exactly constitutes a school-sponsored activity, he said.
“These are questions school districts will be wrestling with,” he said. “There is very little Supreme Court guidance.”