A New Jersey high school student apparently in trouble over comments she made on Twitter shouldn't be punished by the school. She should be praised for speaking her mind.
Fair Lawn High School student Bethany Koval became the subject of international news coverage over how her school apparently dealt with statements she made on Twitter about the Israel-Palestine conflict and a disagreement with another student. A letter from the National Coalition Against Censorship warns that the school should be sure that it is not infringing on her First Amendment rights to make political statements on her own time.
Koval, an Israeli Jew, was called into a meeting with an assistant principal who warned her that some of her Twitter messages could violate the state's anti-bullying law. Koval recorded some of that meeting and posted excerpts on Twitter. At one point, the administrator asked, " “Do you realize that what you put out electronically can also get you in trouble in school, or put you in some kind of problem?”
When she argued that having controversial opinions shouldn't necessarily be a problem, he replied, “There’s a state law that might interpret it different.”
Koval's tweets would probably be considered harsh to some ("FUCK ISRAEL," for instance), but it's hard to see how New Jersey's anti-bullying statute would be implicated in the case. The NCAC letter to the school district expresses concern that the school has overreacted, especially if it has taken action based on the content of Koval's opinion.
The school district released a statement saying that it "recognizes and respects individuals' First Amendment rights to free speech," and that "at no time have District officials sought to censor or reprimand any pupils for their online speech." Instead, they claim their inquiry was based "a complaint alleging potential harassment, intimidation, or bullying ("HIB") by one student against another.”
As free speech advocates have argued, while anti-bullying initiatives are well-intentioned, they must respect core speech rights. As the NCAC put it in 2014:
Efforts to prevent bullying and harassment are critical, but the existence of one problem does not provide license to ride roughshod over students’ constitutional rights. The protection of students can – and must – be achieved without infringing the very rights we teach our children are the basis of our democracy.
The NCAC letter points out that New Jersey's "anti-bullying law is not intended to chill or penalize protected speech, and that the state's Department of Education instructs schools that they “must continue to conform to all applicable case law and statutes." The letter adds:
An apology to her would go a long way to clarify that the district genuinely respects the rights of students. Rather than being subjected to intimidation, students like Ms. Koval should be praised for their willingness to engage in public discussion about pressing political issues.
Read the full letter below; click here for a full-screen view.
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