The Shawano High School newspaper decided to run dueling student opinion pieces on whether same-sex couples should be able to adopt children; the student article that answered the question “no” said, among other things, quotes Leviticus 20:13 (“If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.”). The school district then publicly apologized for the column, as an “[o]ffensive article cultivating a negative environment of disrespect,” and said that it is “taking steps to prevent items of this nature from happening in the future.” And in a Fox interview, the school superintendent labeled the column a form of “bullying.”
Now I’ve long thought that Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier (1988) was correct, and that public K-12 schools should be free to control what is published in the school newspaper. If a school wants the newspaper to be its voice, it should be entitled to dictate which subjects and which viewpoints it chooses to carry, even when it speaks through the speech of students.
But what troubles me here is the superintendent’s willingness to label such speech as a form of “bullying,” which is speech that schools often ban even outside the school’s own newspaper, that schools often try to restrict even when it is said outside school, and that legislatures sometimes even try to criminalize. Indeed, the Shawano School District’s bullying policy provides that “bullying” may lead to “warning, suspension, exclusion, pre-expulsion, expulsion, transfer, remediation, termination, or discharge. Disciplinary consequences will be sufficiently severe to try to deter violations and to appropriately discipline prohibited behavior.”
I’ve long been troubled by anti-bullying policies and criminal laws, partly because “bullying” is a vague and potentially very broad term, which could easily be used to refer to political advocacy and expression of religious views. This incident, it seems to me, helps illustrate that some school officials indeed view the term “bullying” this broadly.