Free Speech in the Classroom

Was it a ‘riot,’ ‘protest,’ ‘insurrection,’ ‘siege,’ or a ‘storming’ that occurred at the Capitol on January 6, 2021? The First and Fourteenth Amendments have been at the forefront of the debate. We see the same images and footage, but unsurprisingly arrive at very different conclusions. So how do we reconcile our differences in the classroom? 

The Ridgewood High School Code of Conduct outlines what constitutes harassment, bullying, and intimidation (H.I.B.). H.I.B. is a multifaceted issue, but recent events bring one element to mind: harassment. Our political beliefs are guided by moral and ethical values. Disagreement over these values doesn’t constitute harassment. However, insults hurled under the blanket of free speech do. 

It’s near impossible to talk politics without mentioning “race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression… a mental, physical or sensory disability, or… any other distinguishing characteristic.” The code of conduct defines one aspect of H.I.B. as any “gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication,” motivated by aforementioned “distinguishing characteristics” that “creates a hostile educational environment.” Given that politics is inherently controversial, when does civil discourse in the classroom become a “hostile educational environment”?

Eliminating the use of “expressions that are obscene, offensive, degrading, or insulting” is one way to prevent this. However, when trigger words like “extremist” and “radical” come up in the context of current domestic issues, it’s hard not to give in to knee-jerk reactions. And when facts are filtered by the media to mold political echo chambers, it’s near impossible to reach a consensus. 

But maybe reaching a consensus isn’t the goal. Guided by our teachers, we can advocate our stances and thereby collectively create a more rounded perspective. The true danger is not to talk at all. There is no algorithm that cements the divide between decorum and hostility, but the more we immerse ourselves in discussion, the better we understand ourselves and the issues at hand. As cliché as it may sound, the key is to respect both each other and the rights we are afforded.

Sanjna Rajagopalan
Opinion Columnist

Graphic: Tarun Kalyanaraman

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *