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This week, Stephanie Mencimer at reported on horrifying cases of harassment and suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin schools  of Minnesota, in Rep. Michelle Bachman’s district. The article, published within days of a suit filed against the district by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has further mobilized advocates calling for expanded anti-bullying policies and legislation.

The suit alleges that the school district’s “Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy”, passed by the school board in 2009, functions as a gag order preventing teachers from discussing sexual orientation in the classroom. While the policy itself employs language instructing educators to address sexual orientation in a “respectful manner that is age-appropriate, factual, and pertinent to the relevant curriculum”, members of the community say in practice it prohibits school staff from presenting basic, factual information about LGBT people, even when necessary to address anti-gay stereotypes or hostility within the student body.

When a group of Anoka-Hennepin students tried to form a Gay-Straight Alliance chapter, the school delayed approval for three months in response to claims that it was a “sex club.” This is nonsense.  Gay-Straight Alliances exist in schools across the country as a place “to give both LGBT and straight kids a supportive environment from which to combat harassment and a place to learn coping skills,” as reported by Mencimer. Students are as entitled to form Gay-Straight Alliances as they are to form chess clubs.

As a First Amendment defender working every day to oppose censorship within schools –book challenges, banned movies, shuttered play productions– it makes me furious that the school interfered with the students’ right of expression and association. And it makes me furious when I hear Michelle Bachman say she opposes anti-bullying policies and legislation due to free speech concerns. It’s obvious to me that Michelle Bachman and her anti-gay activist base don’t care at all about the First Amendment.

But we can’t let Bachman give free speech a bad rap. The First Amendment and free expression play a critical role in planning successful anti-bullying policies.  This is widely misunderstood in the effort to curb any behavior, including protected speech, that might be offensive.  Even the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education has a problem understanding that depriving students of free speech rights isn’t the way to promote students’ other rights.

Let’s be clear: the Anoka-Hennepin school district doesn’t need a speech code to restrict anti-gay statements. The huge, glaring problem in Anoka-Hennepin is that they are already restricting speech about LGBT issues and sandbagging efforts of students to support each other and openly address issues of concern.  It’s also clear that the abuse alleged in the SPLCenter suit, if proved, is prohibited under existing laws and precedents defining a hostile educational environment when:

  • School officials have actual knowledge that students are being harassed because they do not conform to gender stereotypes,
  • They are deliberately indifferent to the harassment, and
  • The behavior is so pervasive, severe, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars access to an education opportunity or benefit.

The lawsuit recounts how students were harassed with slurs on a daily basis, threatened, choked, shoved, and one was even stabbed with a pencil. The acts were allegedly perpetrated on school grounds, sometimes in plain view of school officials. Despite the students and their parents repeatedly reporting these incidents to school staff and administrators, the suit claims they failed to act. In several cases, school officials reportedly told the harassed students to “lay low” or “try to stay out of people’s way” rather than punish the abusive students. One student withdrew from her school when officials failed to address her harassment.

Assuming these allegations can be proved, the answer is not to enact more policies to restrict speech. Young people need more speech on LGBT issues, not less, especially speech that allows gay students to present their views and perspectives and that call schools to account for ignoring real harassment and physical assaults. Suppressing anti-gay speech doesn’t mean the anti-gay sentiments will cease to exist  – only that it will be silenced in school, potentially to be expressed in more covert form elsewhere.

If you or someone you know has been obstructed from creating LGBT support clubs or other forms of educational programming about queer issues within your school, call the National Coalition Against Censorship! We oppose censorship in all its forms, and are dedicated to protecting the free speech rights of young people in the classroom.

Communities can make the First Amendment one of the best anti-bullying policies available to schools today.