It seems like the First Amendment should be respected throughout the country, as freedom is something, which concerns each US citizen. In fact in educational institutions, which are bringing up the future generation, freedom of expression is controlled. It is indeed a very strange situation, as minors and young adults have to be prepared to the variety of opinions that they will face in the adult life. Instead their freedoms are being limited and constrained by the authorities of educational institutions. Existing situation does not give the young Americans a chance to learn how to express themselves and learn to cohabitate with people that have different opinions. Only an understanding of the reasons for this condition will give a chance to make a change and provide students with real freedom of expression.
The First Amendment is not limited by freedom of speech, but in fact covers various forms of expression. In schools and universities the notion of the ‘freedom of expression’ can be broken into a number of sub-categories: what students say and write; expression on campus and off-campus; freedom of students and invited speakers; the ability to speak/look/act etc. Accordingly, the problem of freedom of speech in public schools and universities is not limited to oral expression of opinions and all the mentioned elements of freedom of expression have been jeopardized in different times.
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To understand the existing problems concerning freedom of speech in public schools and universities, it is first of all crucial to see the difference between the two types of institutions. This comparison is required because the rules and limitations concerning freedom of expression in public schools and universities vary significantly. In general university students are more protected by the First Amendment and have more spheres, in which they can freely execute the right of freedom of speech. Public schools introduce a number of restrictions that are based on students` age, type of institution, etc. At the same time universities are more focused on the development of students’ analytical skills and the variety of opinions, while the main focus of school education is still in the sphere of factual information.
There are two main legal principles that limit the operation of the first amendment in public schools: firstly, according to the Supreme Court, the rights of minors and adults differ; secondly, in some situations government has more possibilities to create policies, and public schools represent one of such cases (Hudson). As it will be shown later, universities do not have this level of control because their students are mostly the full-fledged adults and therefore have to be granted all the specter of rights under the First Amendment. As a result, public schools in general have much more possibilities to control and limit their students` freedom of expression.
Although minors are usually perceived as a group of population that requires the most support on legal level, they are in fact the least protected by the First Amendment. As a matter of fact, schools can impose as much limitations on freedom of expression as they want. One example is a school uniform or a definite dress code, which deny students a huge part of creativity and a chance to express their own identity through clothes. Some limitations are introduced in order to protect students from harmful information, which one can easily find on the Internet. Another case is the expression through school newspapers and yearbooks, which was limited by court ruling in the case Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, which allowed censorship of all “school-sponsored student expression” (Hudson). Moreover, this can include not only printed materials, but also Internet access using school computers. And all student expressions, even if conducted off campus, can still be punished if seen by the public schools` authority. Hence, although students in public schools are to some extend protected by the First Amendment, it can be easily limited by the school authorities within the existing justice system.
On the contrary to public schools, college and university students are mainly adults and their educational institutions have less control over students’ lives. But still there are numerous cases of the freedom limitations. This is especially strange taking into account the role of universities as educational institutions that help people to see different opinions and shape their own. Moreover, university students are already adults with strong and fully formed opinions, which they are ready to defend in fierce debates. Not only students are limited in the expression of their opinions, but also the authorities of the educational institutions might control speakers that come to colleges and universities. This control in some cases may be even extended on the content of speeches (Hall). As a result, students get a limited access to information and opinions of others. Therefore it is even more unusual that educational institutions, which have to stimulate new ideas and beliefs, try to bind their expression.
The main problem, which might call upon freedom of speech limitation, is the factor of possible hate speech. There are many cases, which are perceived as acts of discrimination by one group, but at the same time seen as freedom of expression by other. A bright example is the Apartheid Week, which has been described in the Los Angeles Times; it “features a guerrilla-theater-style simulation of a West Bank security checkpoint at which students dressed as Israeli soldiers and carrying mock assault weapons ask "travelers" whether they are Jewish” (“UC Berkeley's 'hostile environment' question”). Jewish students perceive this event as an intimidating and harassing event. They are even afraid of some violent attacks and do not wear symbols of faith on these days. But at the same time the other side perceives the Apartheid Week as an event that gives a chance to express own attitudes and opinions on one of the important issues of global politics. Therefore, on one hand, this is a public protest that shows the opinion of some part of the population, but, on the other hand, this is something that discriminates and harasses other people. And there are numerous similar cases, which involve not only events, but also words and expressions. In 2009 Yale students were banned from making T-shirts that would say “I think of all Harvard men as sissies”, which is an expression from a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Lukianoff). But some of the students argued that this saying was homophobic and thus the T-shirts were blocked. Therefore, to avoid similar situations many universities and colleges have introduced the Speech Codes, which have to balance freedom of speech and public order (Hall). It is interesting that public schools do not have speech codes. This fact does not mean that schools are more liberal then universities. On the contrary, public schools have more possibilities for controlling their students. Therefore speech codes are simply not required because they are replaced with more authoritarian methods of control over the freedom of speech.
The speech codes and selective freedom of expression inevitably lead to discrimination of some people or groups. All rules that try to limit and control freedom of speech in schools and universities are certainly biased. Each of the proposed restrictions and controlling measures is based on beliefs and opinions of those forming the rules. And these people, in their turn, are influenced by a number of factors: cultural and ethnic background, religious beliefs, current political situation etc. Therefore all these components play significant roles in constitution of rules or perception of some words as “hate speech” (Hall). As a result, some people and groups suffer more than others. A bright case of such attitudes is a 2011 case of Muslim students, who were found guilty of disrupting a speech of an Israeli ambassador in their university (Taxin). Although these students used the same methods as their colleagues a year before, their punishment was much harder. This judgment was considered a bright example of Islamophobia and seen to have some more dramatic consequences in the future: “this will be used as precedent now to suppress speech and dissent throughout the country. This is the beginning of the death of democracy” (Taxin) stated Shakeel Syed of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. Therefore the existence of rules and codes that limit freedom of speech, even if it is done with a noble goal to decrease hate speeches, will always lead to duality of attitudes and preference of some groups over other.
As it was already noted, universities have less limitations and more freedom under the First Amendment then public schools. Universities do not have strict dress codes or a strict control over university press, neither on-campus nor off it. Nevertheless, being full-fledged adults, university students bare more responsibilities. For example, the idea of hate speech and the speech codes is as not as developed as in universities. This happens because teachers are able to control school students in the ways that are not available to university authorities. At the same time the two types of educational institutions have different emphasis. If universities are encouraging the variety of opinions and freethinking, schools are still focus on the specific knowledge and information within the learning plan. Therefore, public schools are even not interested in providing students’ protection under the First Amendment.
In the modern US educational system neither students of public schools nor the university students are fully protected by the First Amendment. As a result, instead of responsible adults with strong opinions, who know their own limits and execute their own freedoms to the full extend (of course, at the same time understanding the boundaries and respecting others), universities create two types of individuals. First ones are fiercely fighting for their right of expression, ignoring all the rules and challenging authorities. And the second ones become so politically correct and respectful, that forget about their own opinions. So maybe it is time to start perceiving university students as adults and give them a chance to start setting their own limits and making decisions.
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