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  • From the Editorial Board:Freedom of Expression in Schools and Universities
  • Kelly Barber-Lester and Torrie K. Edwards

Following years of conflict with administrators and lawmakers over the right to its existence, anti-racist protestors tore down the Confederate memorial known as Silent Sam at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on August 20, 2018. For the next three weeks, anti-racist protestors, neo-Confederate and White supremacist demonstrators, and officers from multiple police departments squared off at the former location of the statue. These interactions culminated in physical violence as police aggressively arrested demonstrators on August 25 (Brosseau & Grubb, 2018), deployed pepper spray on student protestors on August 30 (Travis, 2018), and threw smoke bombs and threatened to use bicycles as weapons on September 8 (Brosseau & Grubb, 2018). How the administration and local police have dealt with student protests illuminates critical questions in education today: What constitutes protected student speech, and what kinds of expression lose protection because they are deemed disruptive or unsafe?

Similar violence erupted during protests at Middlebury College in Vermont in March of 2017. Protesters were demonstrating in opposition to a talk and interview given by Dr. Charles Murray, a controversial figure and co-author of The Bell Curve (1994). Demonstrators disrupted Murray's talk by chanting over him and later physically attacked him and a Middlebury professor as they exited the building (Volokh, 2017). Similar protests of conservative campus speakers, such as Milo Yiannopolous (Fuller & Mele, 2017) and Ann Coulter at the University of California-Berkeley, have drawn much media attention (Svrluga, Wan & Dwoskin, 2017); some scholars have halted speaking tours as a result. In these examples, protestors' free speech rights are pitted against the free speech rights of speakers, leading some states to propose legislation to suspend or expel students who repeatedly disrupt campus speakers (Hawkins, 2017).

In addition to protests, university campuses are tension-filled spaces, with increasing attention paid to the challenge of balancing issues of free speech and hate speech and the concerns that the policing of speech in university classrooms is restricting class discussions (Burleigh, 2016). The attempt to protect students from hateful, oppressive expression while simultaneously maintaining schools as places for vigorous, open, democratic debate muddies the waters around freedom of expression. These muddy waters are also found in K-12 schools.

At the K-12 level, student speech rights and limitations on student expression are identified in policy spaces. A particularly salient arena for debating student speech currently [End Page 1] resides in public school dress code policy. Although the complex relationship between student speech and dress code has roots in student protests of the Vietnam War, countless more recent examples exist (Edwards & Marshall, 2018). For example, in August 2018, a six-year-old Black boy with dreadlocks was not permitted to enter his school in Florida because his hairstyle allegedly violated an appearance code at the school (Klein, 2018).

Similarly, in May 2017, two Black students at Malden Charter School in Massachusetts were disciplined by their school administrators for violating the school's hair policy by having their hair styled in braids with extensions. The school administrators argued that their prohibition of hair extensions was implemented in order to foster a culture focused on education rather than, "style, fashion or materialism" (Lazar, 2017). Through long-established legal precedent—the most notable including the Supreme Court dispositions in Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969, Bethel v. Fraser in 1986, and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier in 1988—schools retain the right to regulate students' appearance in the pursuit of maintaining a safe and orderly environment and perpetuating community values. The Malden students' parents, on the other hand, described the students' hair styles as important expressions of culture. They viewed the policy as racist, disproportionately affecting Black children, and in violation of students' constitutionally guaranteed equal protection and due process (Edwards & Marshall, 2018). Elsewhere, dress code and student speech were under consideration when the school board in Orange County, North Carolina recently voted to ban racially intimidating symbols, such as the Confederate flag, from local public schools (Fine, 2017). Advocates of the ban have cited the necessity for creating safe, welcoming school environments for all students, including Black...


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