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Comments on Federal Anti-Bullying Policy on Free Expression

Comments on Federal Anti-Bullying Policy on Free Expression

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Published by: ncacensorship on May 27, 2011
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NationaCoalition
A
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ln
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C
ens
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I9FultonStreet,Suite407
NewYork,NY
10038tel:(212)807-6222fax:(212)8°7.6245e-mail:ncac@ncac.orgweb:www.ncac.org
CommentsbytheNationalCoalitionAgainstCensorshiponFederalEnforcementofCivilRightsLawsProtectingStudentsAgainstBullying,ViolenceandHarassmentUnitedStatesCommissiononCivilRightsMay27,2011TheNationalCoalitionAgainstCensorship('"NCAC"),foundedin1974,isanallianceofmorethan50nationalnon-profitorganizations,includingliterary,artistic,religious,educational,professional,labor,andcivillibertiesgroupsunitedinsupportoffreedomofthought,inquiry,andexpression.'NCAC'sYouthFreeExpressionProjectsupportstherightsofyouthtoaccessinformation,aswellastheirfreedomtoquestion,learn,and
think
forthemselves.NCACworkswithstudents,teachers,parents,andothersconfrontingcensorshipinschools,andadvocatesforpublicpoliciesandlawsthatrespecttheimportance
offree
speechtoyoungpeople.Suppressionofdiscussionanddebateonsensitivetopicsdeprivesstudentsoftheresourcestoaddressissuestheywillinevitablyencounterasadults..
It
isNCAC'spositionthatschoolisthebestplaceforyoungpeopletolearnhowtofunctioninapluralisticsociety.Ifschoolsfailtoofferstudentsanopportunityfordiscussionanddebateonthechallengingissuesoftheirtime,manywillleaveschoolunpreparedtomakethekindofinformeddecisionssonecessaryinarepresentativedemocracy,
****
Theproblemofschoolbullyingandharassmentisaseriousissuethatdeservesnationalattention..Thequestionweraiseinthesecommentsregardstheapproachtobetaken,notthemissionitself.Weunderstandandsupporteffortstopreventbullyingandharassment
in
schools,especiallywhenthetargetsarevulnerable,asmanyLGBTQstudentsare,andwe'fullysupporttheeffortsofschoolsofficialstopreventsuchbehaviorthrougheducationalprograms,counseling,parentalinvolvement,andothermeans.
1
TheviewspresentedinthesecommentsarethoseoftheNCACaloneanddonotnecessarilyrepresenttheviewsofitsindividualmembers.
JoanE.Bertin
ExecutiveDirector
NCACPARTICIPATINGORGANIZATIONS
Actors'EquityAssociationAmericanAssociationofSchoolAdministrators.
AmericanAssccationof
UniversityProfessorsAmericanAssociationofunlversitywomen
AmericanBooksellersFoundation
forFreeExpressionAmericanCivilLibertiesUnion
AmericanEthicalUnion
AmericanFederationofTeachersAmericanFederationofTelevision&
RadioArtists
AmericanjewishCommittee
AmericanlibraryAssociationAmericanLiteraryTranslators
Association
AmericanOrthopsychiatricAssociation
AmericanSocietyof
J
curnalists
&.
AuthorsAmericansUnitedforSeparationofChurch
&
StateAssociationofAmericanPublishers
Authors
GuildCatholicsforChoice
Children's
LiteratureAssociationCollege
Art
AssociationTheCreativeCoalition
Directors
Guild
of
AmericaThe
DramatistsGuildofAmerica
Education
ill
Book
&.
MediaAssociation
FirstAmendmentlawyers
Asscctat.or.lntemaaonal
ReadingAssociation
LambdaLegal
Modern
La
nguage
Assccia-ton
National
CenterforSci~r1(:eEducation
National
CcmrrnmicationAssociation
NationalCouncil
forthe
SocialStudiesNationalCouncil
of
ChurchesNationalCouncil
of
Jewish
Women
National
CouncilofTeachersof
EnglishNationalEducationAssociation
TheNewspaperGuild/CWA
PEN
AmericanCenter
PeopleFor
the
AmericanWayPlanned
Parenthood
Federation
ofAmerica
ScreenActorsGuildSexualityInformation
&
EducationCouncil
of
the
U.S.
Society
of
Children'sBookWrilers
&
Illustrators
Student
PressLawCenter
UnionforReformJudaismUnionofDemocraticIntellectualsUnitarian
UniversalistAssociation
unuec
ChurchofChristOfficeofCommunicationUnited
MethodistChurchUnitedMethodistCommunications
Women'sAmericanORTWritersGuildofAmerica.East
Writers
Guildof
America,
West
 
Page2Weare,however,concernedthatuseofcivilrightslawsprohibitingdiscriminationonthebasisofrace,sex,nationalorigin,anddisabilitymaynotbethemosteffectivewaytoaddresstheissue,andhasthepotentialtoundermineotherrightsthatareessentialtoadvancethecauseofequality.ThesecommentsprimarilyaddresstheapproachoftheDepartmentofEducationOfficeofCivilRights(OCR),reflectedinthe"DearColleague"letterdatedOctober26,20I0(hereafter"theLetter").Bystretchingthedefinitionofharassmenttoencompassvariouskindsofverbalinteractionsinschoolsandcolleges,theletterthreatensthedelicatebalancetheSupremeCourthasstruckbetweentherighttoequalityatworkandschoolandtherighttofreespeech,anapproachreflectedinOCRpronouncementsuntilrecently.ThechangeinOCR'sapproachislikelytocreatewidespreadconfusionandavoidablelitigation,withpotentiallydeleteriouseffectsforcivilrightslaw,FirstAmendmentjurisprudence,andthestudentsitseekstobenefit.Undercontrollingprecedent,someoftheactivitiesdescribedintheLetterwouldnotqualifyasharassment.TheLetter'sexpansiveandvaguelanguagelendsitselftointerpretationandimplementationthatmaywellinfringeconstitutionallights.Evenifthiswerenotthecase,wesubmittheapproachisunwiseasamatterofpolicy.
It
underminessomecriticalrightsinaneffort-whichmayornotsucceed-toachieveotherimportantgoals.Surelyitisnotnecessarytojeopardizetheconstitutionalrightsofstudents,especiallyifotherapproachesthatmightbeequallyormoreeffectivehavenotbeenfullyexplored.Bythreateningfreespeechrights,theapproachreflectedintheLetterendangersthecauseofequalityasmuchasfreespeech.Thecivilrightsmovement,andeveryothermovementtoexpandequalityrights,hassucceededpreciselybecauseadvocatesvigorouslyexercisedtheirFirstAmendmentrightstoprotest,demonstrate,petitiongovernment,andspeakfreely,eventothosetowhomtheirmessagewasunpopular,controversial,andoftendeeplyoffensive.TounderminethatcriticalrightistoputatrisktheveryequalitygoalstheCommissionandOCRseektopromote.Thefollowingcommentsbrieflysketchouthostileenvironment/harassmentlaw,thehistoryofregulatoryactivityonthesubject,aswellasFirstAmendmentprinciplesandleadingcourtopinions.Asthediscussionreveals,theapproachadoptedbyOCRishighlyproblematic.WeurgetheCommissiontosteeradifferentcourseandrecommendpoliciesthatunequivocallyrecognizestudents'righttofreespeechalongwiththeirrighttoaneducationalenvironmentfreeofinvidiousdiscrimination.1.HostileenvironmentharassmentTheSupremeCOUlthasaddressedtheissueofdiscriminationresultingfromharassmentorahostileenvironmentonnumerousoccasions.WefocusinthesecommentsoncasesinvolvingTitleVIIoftheCivilRightsActandTitleIXoftheEducationAmendmentsof1972,wherethelawismostfullydeveloped.
 
Page3
MeritorSavingsBankv.Vinson,
477U.S.57(1986),acaseinvolvingunwantedsexualadvancesofasupervisortowardafemaleemployee,wastheCourt'sfirstmajorpronouncementontheissue.TheCourtheldthatfor"sexualharassmenttobeactionable[underTitleVIIoftheCivilRightsAct]itmustbesufficientlysevereorpervasive'toaltertheconditionsofthe[thevictim's]employmentandcreateanabusiveworkingenvironment."
ld.
at67.
Harrisv.ForkliftSystems,Inc.,
510U.S.17(1993),anotherTitleVIIcaseallegingrepeated,targetedandegregiousformsofverbalharassment,reaffirmedtheCourt'sapproachin
Meritor,
butnotedthatoffensivelanguagealoneisordinarilyinsufficienttomakeoutahostileenvironmentclaim.Rather,"whetheranenvironmentis'hostile'or'abusive'canbedeterminedonlybylookingat...thefrequencyofthediscriminatoryconduct;itsseverity;whetheritisphysicallythreateningorhumiliating,oramereoffensiveutterance;andwhetheritunreasonablyinterfereswithanemployee'sworkperformance."
Id.
at23.
SeealsoClarkCountySchoolDistrictv.Breeden,
532U.S.268,271(2001)("simpleteasing,offhandcomments,andisolatedincidents(unlessextremelyserious)willnotamountto"harassment),and
PennsylvaniaStatePolicev.Suders,
542U.S.129(2004).CasesassertinghostileenvironmentharassmentineducationmodifiedtheapproachtakeninTitleVIIcasesinsignificantways.In
Davis
v.
MonroeCountyBoardofEducation,
526U.S.629(1999),acaseallegingpeer-to-peerharassment,theCourtheldthattheschoolmusthave
actualknowledge
ofharassmenttowhichitis
deliberatelyindifferent,
andthattheharassmentmustbeso"severe,pervasive,
andobjectivelyoffensive,
thatiteffectivelybarsthevictims'saccesstoaneducationalopportunityorbenefit."
ld.
at633(emphasisadded).Theopinionthusrequiresstrongerevidenceofthedeleteriouseffectsonindividualsandexplicitlyrequiresthattheharassmentbejudgedbyanobjectivestandardthatmeetsallthreecriteria("severe,pervasive,
and
objectivelyoffensive,,).2TheCourtfurtherheldthatthe"harassmentmustoccur'under''theoperationsof"theschooland"musttakeplaceinacontextsubjecttotheschooldistrict'scontrol."
Id.
at645.Inobservingthat"harassmentdependsonaconstellationofsurroundingcircumstances,expectations,andrelationships,"theCourtnotedthat"schoolchildrenmayregularlyinteractinwaysthatwouldbeunacceptableamongadults."
ld.
at675,651.Seealso
Gebser
v.
LagoVistaIndependentSchoolDistrict,
524U.S.274(1998).
3
2
TheDepartmentofEducationhasthepowerunderTitleIXonlytodenyorwithdrawfederalfundingfrominstitutionsthatfailtocomplywithitsnon-discriminationmandates.
Fitzgerald
v.
BarnstableSchoolCommittee,
555U.S.246(2009).AprivaterightofactionisimpliedunderTitleIXandcourtdecisionsinterpretingthestatutethusariseasactionsfordamagesandotherreliefbyaggrievedindividuals.
3
Intheseandothercases,decisionshavebeencarefullydrawntoavoidpotentialconflictswithFirstAmendmentrights."Thereisofcoursenoquestionthatnon-expressive,physicallyharassing
conduct
isentirelyoutsidetheambitofthefreespeechclause.....Whenlawsagainstharassmentattempttoregulateoralorwrittenexpressiononsuchtopics,howeverdetestabletheviewsexpressedmaybe,wecannotturnablindeyetotheFirstAmendmentimplications.'Wherepureexpressionisinvolved,'anti-discriminationlaw'steersintotheterritoryoftheFirstAmendment.'"
Saxev.StateCollegeAreaSchoolDistrict,240
F.3d200,206(3dCir.2001)(citationomitted}.

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