around the bar
February 14, 2009

Panel Says Students’ Free Speech Promotes School Achievement

A day-long series of programs Friday on public school reform and at-risk students concluded with the panel, “Students Rights: Free Expression and Beyond,” that focused on student rights and included an exploration of the benefits of free speech in schools.

Steve Wermiel, associate director of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project at American University’s Washington College of Law, provided overview of students’ constitutional right to free speech since the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines School District.

In that case, Justice Abe Fortas famously wrote in his opinion that, “Students don’t shed their rights at the schoolhouse door.”

But since that decision, Wermeil said the Supreme Court has set up tests for limiting speech that go beyond whether the speech incites “material and substantial disruption.”

These tests question whether the speech is vulgar, lewd or age-inappropriate; whether it could be perceived as school-sponsored speech; and whether it promotes illegal activity such as drug use.

Wermiel said that the Fortas opinion established a profound vision for the education of our nation’s children by recognizing that debate and controversy are essential parts of education and the transition from childhood into adulthood.

“Speech is the educational process,” said panelist Paul Weckstein, co-director of the Center for Law and Education in Washington, D.C. He said that research shows, “When teachers promote a disciplined inquiry to create new knowledge on real world matters … achievement goes way up.”

A third panelist, Suzanne Wright, director of the Ibrahim El-Hefni Technical Training Foundation in California, agreed with Weckstein and encourages teachers to add disciplined inquiry in their classrooms.

Wright said that public schools are falling behind because of an emphasis on standardized tests. “Standardized testing is doing a disservice to critical thinking and analysis,” she said.

Through the foundation established by her father, Wright hopes to put creativity, inquiry and passion back into classrooms by working with administrators and teachers to design hands-on, active learning experiences for students.

The program series was presented by the ABA Commission on Youth at Risk, Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, Division for Public Education, and the Center on Children and the Law.