EWSD Statement on Freedom of Expression - Message from Superintendent Cobb
Everyday in the news we are reminded of the controversy that people face in sharing their beliefs, values and political views. A national controversy that many young people feel connected to revolves around when professional athletes ‘take a knee’ during the National Anthem. Many college students, as well as some high school students, have followed suit, not in disrespect, but in a protest against social injustice. In today’s climate, freedom of speech has been heightened. As Superintendent, I feel it is a good time to remind our educational community of our constitutional rights.
On November 30, 2017, Vermont’s Secretary of Education, Rebecca Holcombe, Ed.D., reminded Vermont educators of “Tinker v. Des Moine School Dist,. 393 U.S. 503 (1969), when the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision that school administrators cannot censor student speech unless they determine the speech will cause a material and substantial disruption of school activities or interfere with the rights of others. Specifically, simply anticipating or fearing that student speech, such as wearing black armbands to school will cause a disturbance is insufficient reason to censor that speech.” She also quoted Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, who said “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
To provide our students with both a quality education and training for our democratic system and values, it is imperative that we protect our students’ right to free speech and privacy, both in and out of school. We, as a school district, represent a full range of beliefs. It is important to remember our students are free to speak their minds. They can express themselves through their clothing, their choice of hair color, buttons that make social statements, and through symbolic expression through the arts.
Our responsibility as educators is to provide a safe environment while respecting and embracing social justice conflicts in our schools. We should welcome the conversations to happen. My belief is that it is better to learn with us and have respectful conversations in our educational settings. The key is striking a balance so that education occurs while students exercise their constitutional rights. When opportunities arise, we need to take them as learning opportunities. We want our students to express themselves in ways that do not challenge our ability to provide a safe learning environment for all. Isn’t it our duty, as public educators, to teach our children about democracy?