Protecting students' free speech rights and protecting them from each other can be difficult goals to reconcile, according to three experts who spoke Tuesday at the annual Milton Sorokin Symposium.
The symposium featured a panel discussion on the topic of "Rights in Conflict: Protecting Kids from Bullying vs. Protecting Free Speech." It was sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Foundation of Connecticut and the University of Connecticut School of Law, and was held in the law school's Starr Reading Room.
The panelists examined the effectiveness of laws designed to prevent bullying, the distinctions between the free speech rights of adults and children and the line between intervention and punishment for bullying behavior.
"Intervention is different from punishment," said Maria Kayanan, associate legal director of the ACLU of Florida. "Anything that smacks of being punitive I think triggers a really hard look at whether it's a violation of the First Amendment, whether a student is being punished for protected speech."
Jo Ann Frieberg, a consultant on school environment for the state Department of Education, said adults should always speak up when they see children being mean-spirited but that punitive measures often don't work. "From a best practice standpoint, I would agree wholeheartedly that punishment, whether it's detention, suspension, expulsion, or keeping them in from recess, doesn't do any good," she said. "We're really talking about fostering positive relationships rather than separating them and saying 'We don't want you in school.' "
One issue, said Daniel Weddle, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, is overreaction. "The problem with some of these bullying statutes is that they encourage kind of draconian responses to what ought to be teachable moments," said Weddle, a researcher and expert on bullying issues.
While Weddle proposed a set of criteria for determining whether off-campus behavior should be addressed by school officials, Kayanan said parents should be in charge of discipline for what happens outside of school. If the behavior is criminal, she said, police should be involved.
"Do you really want the heavy arm of the state following your child home from school?" she asked.
About 100 people attended the symposium and lined up to ask questions afterward. The program, moderated by ACLU of Connecticut past President Don Noel, also featured awards for winners of the annual First Amendment High School Essay Contest, which also addressed questions of bullying and free speech.
-- April 18, 2012