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Teachers’ and Students’ Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression Essay Sample

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Teachers’ and Students’ Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression Essay Sample

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” – Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A very powerful and resounding statement, this declaration has always been an answer to every issue that threatens the freedom of speech and expression of every individual or group in the United States of America, and in every member country of the United Nations (All Human Rights For All). This single piece of declaration has served as an anchor by which every decision concerning freedom of speech and expression was made and in many instances, this has served as a protection to individuals or groups whose opinions or expressions may go against the accepted norms of an established institution or even, as private venue as the classroom. Anyhow, it may be said that recognition of one’s freedom of speech and expression has improved somewhat overtime given the many previous cases in history among educational institutions, teachers and students.

These landmark cases in the academe, which became the bases of today’s decisions regarding disputes on freedom of speech and expression, must be revisited in order to provide everyone a clearer picture of how previous cases were decided. However, no matter how many disputes have been settled regarding this issue, it still remains very complex and vague especially to the decision-making bodies (i.e. judicial courts) who must rule whether or not a person’s freedom of expression has really been compromised. Hence, it is important that the reasons or grounds behind such decisions be discussed. Meanwhile, infringement on a person’s right to intellectual liberty and free speech may vary in scale, it may be a concern involving the whole school or it may be limited to a single classroom. Opinions may be divided on whether or not teachers and students should have absolute intellectual liberty or freedom of speech and expression in schools and the classroom. It is important that we determine when a person’s freedom of expression has been compromised, and in this light, mention the importance and rationale of keeping censorship and regulation alive in schools. The question now is where we draw the precarious line between keeping freedom of speech alive among students and teachers in the classroom and justifiable grounds maintained by educational institutions and the state to control it.

Over the years, many disputes have been resolved over issues on freedom of speech of students and teachers, mostly against educational institutions. And in each case, varying decisions have been made but each time; consideration was given to the facts surrounding the allegation of infringement to freedom of speech and matters of public concern. Hence, it is important to highlight some cases brought about by statements that teachers made in the classroom, in order to show how the judicial courts have decided in each dispute. In Clark v. Holmes (Relevant Cases on Academic Freedom in the Classroom, 2007), a non-tenured teacher brought a case against the university when he was not rehired due to various actions that were viewed by the school as improper, such as, counseling a number of students himself instead of referring them to the university’s professional counselors, counseling with his office door closed, unnecessarily overemphasizing sex in a health course, and belittling other staff members during discussions with his students in the classroom. The court ruled in favor of the university. They found that the teacher’s disputes against his colleagues were not a matter of public concern and that the university’s role as an employer overcame any freedom of speech that the teacher may have had.

The court held that academic freedom did not give the teacher the right for uncontrolled expression in the classroom that went against established curricular contents and proper functioning of the institution such as (1) the need to maintain discipline or harmony among coworkers; (2) the need for confidentiality; (3) the need to curtail conduct which impedes the teacher’s proper and competent performance of his daily duties; and (4) the need to encourage a close and personal relationship between the employer and his superiors, where that relationship calls for loyalty and confidence.” In Williams v. Vidmar (Teachers’ Right to Freedom of Speech in the Classroom), a teacher brought charges against Cupertino Union School District for allegedly violating his right to freedom of speech by censoring his teaching because he was a Christian. The dispute started when said teacher was prevented from teaching students about the religious context of historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence.

This media brought the story out which caught nationwide attention. The school Principal Patricia Vidmar met with Stephen Williams, a fifth grade teacher, after a parent complained about the nature of discussion in Williams’ classroom and the handouts given to the students. Principal Vidmar, and Orthodox Christian, discussed Williams’ choice of teaching materials and expressed concern that those materials violated the constitution because it is acceptable in the constitution to teach about religion, but promoting it is not. Consequently, the teacher was required to provide the principal a copy of his classroom materials for distribution two days in advance. This prompted his charge against the district for violation of freedom of speech by censoring his speech in the classroom. The court dismissed his complaints and stated that the constitution did not provide teachers the right to determine the curriculum to be taught in the classroom. The court also ruled that Principal Vidmar’s plan to monitor Williams’ materials was based on a legitimate pedagogical concern over avoidance of constitutional violations under the Establishment Clause which prohibits schools from endorsing religion.

Hence, there was no violation of freedom of speech. The court further expressed that there is a difference between being an avowed Christian, which Williams or anyone for that matter is free to be, and expressing or promoting Christian faith in the classroom which is unconstitutional. On the other hand, the following cases were ruled in favor of the teachers (Sexual Harassment, 2005). In Silva v. University of New Hampshire, several students accused a tenured faculty member and writing instructor, Donald Silva because of his sexually laced comments in class. After eight students filed a formal complaint against Silva, the university created another section of the class where 26 students from his class transferred to. Silva was reprimanded by the University for violating the sexual harassment policy and suspended him for one year without pay and required him to undergo counseling before he resumes teaching. Silva filed a case with the federal court after his grievance complaints were denied by the university.

The court ruled in favor of Silva and concluded that his classroom statements were made in accordance to his educational objectives of conveying certain principles related to the subject matter of his course and done in a professionally appropriate manner. In Cohen v. San Bernardino Valley College, a remedial English class teacher described his teaching style as confrontational to shock his students to make them think and write about confrontational subjects. He read articles to his class that he had published in Hustler and Playboy magazines and led classroom discussions on topics such as obscenity, cannibalism and consensual sex with children. The board of trustees ordered Cohen to warn students of his confrontational style attend a sexual harassment seminar and be aware of the effect of his teaching style to students. Cohen sued the sexual for violation of First Amendments right which was ruled against him by a district court. However, this was reversed by a circuit court of appeals stating that the sexual policy as simply too vague to be applied to Cohen and his speech did not fall within the core region of sexual harassment policy.

Obviously, not only teachers seek freedom of speech in the classroom but students as well. Nothing illustrates this more than the landmark case of Bethel v. Fraser (Roth & Bennett, 1997), a high school student in Bethel, Washington, Matthew Fraser, gave a nominating speech in a school assembly hall in support of a fellow student running for elective office. Students were required to attend this assembly. Fraser’s speech contained sexual innuendos which school authorities viewed as a direct violation against the school’s prohibition against use of obscene and profane language and gestures. This caused Fraser’s three days suspension and removal from the list of potential commencement speakers. He brought charges against the school for allegedly violating his right for free speech. The district and circuit court ruled in favor of Fraser. But the Supreme Court reversed the decision finding no violation of the First Amendment was made. The Court stressed that schools need to teach civility and prohibiting the use of vulgar and offensive terms is a highly appropriate function of the schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court interprets the First Amendment as promoting the idea that the government, therefore including its agencies such as the public school system, should not restrict the freedom of speech or expression because of ideas, message, subject area or content. However, it also recognizes that the freedom of speech of teachers and students must be balanced against significant educational interest of the school (Teachers’ Right to Freedom of Speech in the Classroom) and the common good. After all, justice and reason is not served if it only considered one side of the spectrum.  There are two concepts or criteria which the U.S. Supreme Court examines in considering teachers’ rights under the First Amendment, the forum where the speech occurred and whether or not the speech is a matter of public concern. In consideration of the forum, the Supreme Court recognizes three different types: public, limited public and private forum. Public forum refers to areas such as sidewalks, common areas, and areas specifically designated for free speech; Limited public forums include school grounds that are open for expression on a range of views; the classroom is classified as a private forum.

Speeches done in public and limited public forums have very limited restrictions, an expression or speech done to air an opinion or point of view may not be suppressed, contrary to private forums where speech can be limited in many ways, for instance, it should have a valid pedagogical value. On the other hand, the issue of public concern is put to the test when the issue raised involves social, political or other interests that concern the community. A balance must be resolved between the rights of the individual and the school’s interest in promoting its services (Your Rights, 2007). The students’ right to free speech is likewise protected by the First Amendment. However, just like any rule of law, its application to students is subject to conditions. Students enjoy said protection but it does not allow them to disrupt classwork or invade the rights of others. Contrary to the right of teachers and other adults who can speak freely with the use of offensive words, in making a political point or expressing a view, this particular leeway is not applicable to students, this was expressly pointed out in the case of Bethel v. Fraser.

Schools are responsible in teaching civility to students; therefore, they are authorized to discipline students who resort to vulgar and offensive terms during public discourse. However, schools have greater authority in regulating and disciplining students during school-sponsored programs than those that are held outside the classroom or school territory (Roth & Bennett, 1997). Although the academic institutions are usually on the other end of the disputes, the decision-making involved which puts them in this kind of situation is never easy. In every process, schools must strike a balance among various points such as, needs and interests of the school, its mission, vision and standards, the fiscal and operational needs of the school, all these against adherence to the law (Goonen, 1999). Aside from mandatory legal consideration, academic institutions must also adhere to ethics which they should champion in order to maintain the high standard by which they are expected to operate.

Needless to say that freedom of speech or expression is of utmost importance in the academe where a great source of brilliant minds can be found. It is only logical that young students are allowed to grow and be given a venue where they can freely speak their minds and realize their full potentials. Where else can the most ideal venue be than the classroom. Equally so for their erudite teachers, it is essential that the academe becomes an arena where their genius can flourish, it is only in this way that they will be of utmost use to their students.   The liberty to freely express one’s self is one of the cornerstones of democracy. We see the exercise of this freedom everyday, in every form of media and in every section of the society. However, there are times, as evidenced by many disputes in the past, when an individual feels that his/her right to freedom of speech or expression is being violated by a particular institution or entity. As what is customarily the case, whenever a threat to a person to freely express him or herself is impeded, the law that allows a person to freely and fully exercise such right is imposed. The battleground for many issues on freedom of speech or expression seem to be the educational institutions where said liberty seats precariously on edge.

We are all aware of the challenging yet difficult task of teachers especially in the area of classroom management. Hence, teachers have the power and authority to impose discipline to promote learning process the way he/she deems fit. The number one request of teachers focuses on activities that would improve student discipline. It is no longer uncommon to hear of “teacher burn-out,” the demands of controlling classroom environment take its toll on the teachers. (Bonfadini, 1993). These responsibilities is further “aggravated” by the need imposed by the schools to temper and subdue their teaching styles so as not to provoke or undermine students’ rights. The First Amendment allows for academic freedom of speech for everyone, including teachers and students in the academe, to promote a healthy and active discussion in the classroom.

Because of these policies, however, many believe that educational institutions inadvertently forces teachers to temper and regulate their teaching styles so as not to offend students, which they believe, lead to unproductive learning environment (Hudson, 2005). Students, in the same way may be affected by these regulations as their intellectual liberty may be limited. There are instances, when the right of the academic institutions to uphold its authority to impose discipline among erring students is valid, if only to maintain their ethical values and responsibilities to the greater whole. In all the controversies and gray areas that surround the exercise of free speech and expression, everyone should also be aware, not only of the rights of students and teachers to intellectual liberty and freedom of speech, but also of the need to uphold a balance between those rights and the common good. In situations when such balance is compromised, it is the responsibility of the judicial court to uphold the law and determine whose right was infringed upon.

History has provided us with a rich source of information by which we could anchor our views and decisions in upholding intellectual liberty or freedom of speech and expression for all. Our forefathers left a legacy that aims to effectively ensure that everyone is able to exercise his/her right to free speech and expression, for everyone has a right to be heard, even in as private and small a venue as the classroom . Therefore, it is incumbent upon the government and academic institutions to respect this right, and it is placed upon the judicial system to uphold the law. But no matter how simple the idea may be, there are many instances when the practice of such right encroaches on others’ beliefs and opinions. When this happens, the decision-making process involved in determining whether or not a violation is committed involves a complex balancing act.

However, as much as students and teachers desire to exercise their intellectual liberty in the classroom, it is naturally important that some kind of process be put in place to regulate and discipline the validity of every claim. When internal processes in the schools fail, having an entity, such as the judicial courts, to determine the validity of every violation claim is as important as imposing the law. We all recognize the importance of censorship or discipline at one point in every endeavor, otherwise, we are subjecting ourselves to limitless opportunities by many groups – well meaning or not – to impose their beliefs upon others. In this regard, the line, on which freedom of speech and disciplinary measures or control against those who compromise the public interest, are drawn is vague and complicated. It may be said that intellectual liberty in the classroom is not absolute after all, and freedom of speech and of expression is not totally free. But not exercising one’s right to freely express his/her opinion and views in the classroom is much costlier, because it is in this arena that young people start their quest toward reaching their full potential.


All Human Rights For All. (n.d.). Retrieved April 29, 2007, from United Nations: http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html

Bonfadini, J. (1993). Discipline: Education’s Number One Problem. Retrieved April 30, 2007, from Virginia Tech Technology Education: http://teched.vt.edu/VCTTE/VCTTEMonographs/VCTTEMono2(Discipline).html

Goonen, N. M. (1999). Education Administration: A Guide to Legal, Ethical, and Practical Issues. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Hudson, D. J. (n.d.). Retrieved from First Amendment Center.

Relevant Cases on Academic Freedom in the Classroom. (2007, March 28). Retrieved April 29, 2007, from University of North Carolina at Charlotte: http://www.legal.uncc.edu/classrmcases.html

Roth, S.V., &  Bennett, B. (1997, February 14). Freedom of Speech in High Schools. Members Only, Volume 122 Issue 2. Retrieved April 29, 2007, from http://www.lsc.state.oh.us/membersonly/freedomspeech.pdf

Sexual Harassment. (2005, January 19). Retrieved April 29, 2007, from First Amendment Center: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/speech/pubcollege/topic.aspx?topic=sexual_harassment

Teachers’ Right to Freedom of Speech in the Classroom. (n.d.). Retrieved April 29, 2007, from Law Offices of Spector, Middleton, Young and Minney: http://www.smymcharterlaw.com/docs/Freedom_of_Speech_Legal_Alert_(CHP)_051205.pdf

Your Rights. (2007, April 21). Retrieved April 29, 2007, from National Education Association-New Mexico: http://www.nea-nm.org/PDF/YourRight11-05.pdf

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