The price of free speech for Marlborough students and teachers

By Tessa ’19, Catherine ’20, Kendra ’20 and Amanda ’19

Freedom of speech was first outlined as a right to all US citizens in 1791 as part of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Specifically, the document explains, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

The right to freedom of speech was further outlined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights as being guaranteed to all people. However, this right has caveats for private school students and teachers.

Teachers’ Rights

Public school teachers have protection of their First Amendment rights because they are government employees. According to the Center for Public Education,  “employees cannot be disciplined or suffer negative consequences for speaking out on matters of ‘public concern’.”

At private schools however, many First Amendment protections do not apply. Additionally, non-profit organizations must abide by certain laws that apply to all California non-profit organizations. As a non-profit Marlborough teachers are bound by these regulations.

For example, laws regarding political speech are very specific. Teachers are allowed to promote only non-partisan activities; they may advocate for causes they feel passionately about, but not for bills or candidates in particular, and are allowed to hold nonpartisan voter registrations.

Assistant Head of School and Dean of the Upper School Laura Hotchkiss said that while there is no official policy at Marlborough regarding teachers’ rights to discuss their politics in the classroom, there is a practice encouraged by the administration.

“I don’t know that it’s a policy, but the practice is that teachers are not to be promoting their political beliefs in the classroom in order to promote a classroom where all views feel equally valued, … if a power dynamic is that a teacher’s political views are very well-known, I would think that would sway the way students might feel comfortable sharing,” Hotchkiss said.

Various faculty members said they agree that rather than a formal policy, teachers should carefully decide whether or not inserting their opinions into classroom discussions will make their students feel uncomfortable.

History instructor Helen Mendoza said that context is important for teachers when deciding whether or not  to insert their personal beliefs into a class conversation and that they need to determine before speaking whether or not their opinion will benefit the discussion.

“I feel like my role is to allow [students’] views to be heard and so I would feel comfortable sharing my views if it helped to explain a situation, but I don’t think it’s my role to indoctrinate the students with my view,” Mendoza said.

High School Debate Coach and social sciences instructor Adam Torson said that teachers should be allowed to share their political beliefs in the classroom, but only if the students feel comfortable sharing their own as well.

“The critical thing is that a teacher is respectful of everyone’s views and creates an atmosphere where students feel free to express their own views without being punished or thinking that it will hurt their grade…I think you have to find the appropriate balance of not propagandizing or demanding that students share your views,” Torson said.

History and Social Sciences Department Head Jonathon Allen said that he does not believe teachers should ever discuss their political beliefs, but he said he feels that conversing about politics in general without any bias is important.

“I feel it is the responsibility of teachers, and especially history and social science teachers, to present multiple perspectives to students and allow them to come to their own conclusions… it is not only important, but beneficial to talk about current events, including politics, and especially politics,” Allen said.

Mendoza and Allen have different opinions on what to do if approached by students about their political or religious beliefs. Allen was recently approached by a conservative student who aimed to connect with him, as she assumed he may be conservative due to his South Carolina upbringing. He did not answer her question and reveal his political proclivities but encouraged her to keep an open mind and reminded her that she is not the only conservative on campus.

On the other hand, Mendoza said that, if approached by a student, she would answer most questions asked of her personal religious or political beliefs.

“I would try to put forth as balanced perspectives as I could. We might be learning about religions for example and students might say to me, ‘Well, what do you believe?’ I’m happy to tell you what I believe but I’m also not going to say that this view is wrong or this doesn’t have any credibility because it’s not my place to say that,” Mendoza said.

Students also have differing opinions on how much teachers should be permitted to share in the classroom. Of the 103 student respondents to the UltraViolet’s survey, 57.3% of students said they believed that teachers should share their political beliefs in the classroom, while 42.7% of students felt they should not. 55.3% of students said they believe that Marlborough teachers should have complete freedom of speech as opposed to the 44.7% of students who disagreed.

Alexis ’19 said that teachers’ rights to free speech should be limited, and they should only be allowed to discuss their political opinions if they do not harm a student’s well-being.

“I do believe that certain opinions are more appropriate than others because a lot of the time some opinions can actually be destructive to how a person feels, how a person views themselves, or how they carry themselves through school. … It really depends on what the opinion is,” Alexis said.

Rami ’19 disagreed and said she is in support of teachers sharing their political opinions in the classroom and that everyone should be allowed to state their beliefs.

“I believe that students should understand their teachers’ political opinions because, especially in humanities classes, [teachers’] beliefs will influence their teaching. It is important to know the point of view of your teacher and how that plays into your learning. However, even if teachers do share their political beliefs, it should not become a focus of the class because it can alienate students or make them feel uncomfortable in discussion,” Rami said.

Students’ Rights

As a part of the government, public schools must enforce the first amendment rights to speech and press. California students in public schools are guaranteed rights to free speech at school under the Education Code section 48950. Public schools “shall not make or enforce a rule subjecting a high school pupil to disciplinary sanctions solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication that, when engaged in outside of the campus, is protected from governmental restriction by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or Section 2 of Article I of the California Constitution.”

Free speech, as a Constitutional right, cannot be taken away from students, but since Marlborough is a private institution, it can take disciplinary actions against students who violate the School’s policy on harassment, bullying, or discrimination, thereby limiting free speech at Marlborough.

The Understanding states no restrictions on free speech unless they are harming another student or going against the School’s principles. According to The Understanding, “rudeness, lack of kindness, or spiteful behavior of any sort (physical, verbal, and/or written) directed towards peers, faculty, staff, or guests, including use of profanity and name calling” are actions that can lead to dismissal or disciplinary actions from the School.”

The restrictions also extend beyond Marlborough’s campus. Though Marlborough cannot legally restrict a student from saying anything because that right is protected in the Bill of Rights, the School can take disciplinary actions against students who violate the school’s policies outside of school hours and outside campus as well.

The Understanding’s statements on bullying and the School’s image state a student’s speech, in or out of school, can lead to actions as extreme as expulsion.

Especially since last year’s election, free speech has become a topic of discussion and controversy at Marlborough. The intense reactions to the election sparked debate about how much political speech is appropriate at school.

Despite these concerns a survey by the UltraViolet reported that 67% of students think that Marlborough students should have complete freedom of speech and 45% feel comfortable sharing their beliefs inside the classroom most of the time.

Clara Nevins ’18 said she believes Marlborough to be an open and accepting to free speech, which is a right she said was very important to her.

“Some of my favorite class discussions, and I can think of several, have been where we’ve had incredible and fruitful discussions about our political beliefs.” Nevins said. “I don’t know if there are limitations [at Marlborough on speech], per say, because I think it’s such an incredibly open campus.”

Mia ’18, said she feels comfortable sharing her beliefs in the classroom due to the common respect she said she feels exists amongst her classmates.

“I do feel more comfortable sharing my beliefs in a classroom because at Marlborough we all share common respect for one another and our opinions,” Mia said.

Lydia ’20 agreed and said she believes that she and her friends at Marlborough are all like minded which makes her feel more comfortable expressing herself.

“In a public sphere with friends outside, it’s easier in a classroom especially at Marlborough because very many of us are like-minded,” Lydia said.

In the UltraViolet survey, 55.3% of students said they feel that Marlborough supports their freedom of speech.

Mia and Lydia said that they have never seen an administrator or teacher silence a student at Marlborough, but rather incorporate their opinions into the curriculum.

Kate ’20 is one of the many students who also believes that freedom of speech is a necessity. However, she feels more comfortable expressing her beliefs outside of the classroom.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to express your political beliefs in the classroom because politics should not take away from your schoolwork,” Kate said.

However, Senya  ’23 said that outside of Marlborough and inside, there is equal acceptance of freedom of speech, but she said she understands why students may feel less comfortable in the classroom as opposed to outside.

“As a seventh grader, students may be afraid of what their friends might say or think of their opinions if they differ,” Senya said.

Sophie ’21 said that she feels more comfortable expressing herself at Marlborough than in instances outside of school.

“At Marlborough, I feel more comfortable saying what I believe in because this is an environment that encourages students to state what they believe in,” Sophie said.

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