When the school bell rings at 2:45 p.m., and we shed off our plaid skirts with an inflated, euphoric sense of after-school freedom, we seldom think of the overhanging off-campus restrictions to one of our civil liberties that is an inevitable trade-off at private religious schools: our freedom of speech.
Laws Regulating Student Freedom of Speech
As the Student Press Law Center informs, this loophole to freedom of speech suppression at private schools is possible due to the First Amendment’s specific wording: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”
Public school officials act on behalf of the federal government; thus, this civil liberty only prohibits the government — not private institutions — from infringing on individual freedom of speech.
In addition, private schools can generally expel or punish students for off-campus student expression, but the California Leonard Law has aimed to prohibit both public and private college administrations from limiting student speech that would be protected by the First Amendment.
The law passed in 1992 states, “It is the intent of the Legislature that a student shall have the same right to exercise his or her right to free speech on campus as he or she enjoys when off campus.”
On the other hand, the law also allows private religious schools to suppress student speech that “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”
While free speech at private religious schools can be subject to censorship because of the First Amendment’s limited application, they do allow students to speak about their faith, an advantage over public schools that practice separation between church and state.
The Extent of Student Expression at Presentation
In a school-wide survey about the extent of student freedom of speech at Presentation, students were asked to read statements and rank the magnitude to which they agreed, in which 1 indicated strong disagreement, and 10 indicated strong agreement. The survey defined freedom of speech as “the right of an individual or community to express their beliefs or ideas without fear of retaliation or censorship. In the context of a private religious high school, this definition extends to freedom of fear from disciplinary action or punishment for off-campus free student expression.”
According to the survey, the majority of students strongly agreed that “freedom of speech is integral to my education and beyond the classroom,” and 87.5 percent of students ranked “freedom of speech and thought is a defining characteristic of Presentation High School’s graduation outcome: ‘She is intellectually competent’” between 7 and 10.
Considering many Presentation students value freedom of speech, administrative policies regarding student publications and student disciplinary action might come as a shock to champions of student expression.
In the past, the Presentation administration expressed concern about some of The Voice’s story ideas relating to sensitive or controversial issues, such as mental illness or sexual harassment. This has inhibited an integral part of our mission to increase awareness of these topics and represent the student body by bringing these issues, or “complaints,” to the attention of the administration, as written in the Voice manual.
According to the section titled “Public Performance Policy” on page 46 of the 2019 Student-Parent Handbook, the purpose of all public representations of Presentation, including student publications, such as the Voice, is “to represent our school in a most positive manner. Students should always check with their coaches, moderators, proctors, chaperones, and supervisors for approval before publicly presenting any material in order to ensure that each ‘performance’ is as positive and successful as possible.”
Disregarding the inherent paradox between “positive and successful” performance and “complaints” to the administration, given that one of the causes of dismissal listed in the handbook is “inappropriate off-campus behavior,” can this vague definition apply to off-campus free speech — such as a “complaint” — that is unfavorable — or not “positive” — to the school image?
In this way, our freedom of speech rights as Presentation students are fragile in comparison to the flexible administrative guidelines and censorship policy regulating them.
Although a majority of students agree that “Presentation curriculum and classes support students’ freedom to think, rather than what to think” and that our “school community appreciates and encourages diverse religious opinions and perspectives,” students’ consensus for the most part ceases at censorship experience and comfortability expressing minority opinions in the classroom environment.
For the statement, “I have experienced some form of censorship in writing, speech, or other medium of student expression by school officials or teachers, or I have self-censored for fear of being belittled for my beliefs,” the mode was 10 (strongly agree), as 16.7 percent of students strongly agreed with this statement, and 53.1 percent of students ranked the statement between 6 and 10. All survey data results can be viewed in the graphs below.
Prior to observing this statistic, freshman Danica Kubota believed that Presentation supported free student expression and freedom of thought, citing her history teacher who welcomes diverse opinions as an example.
Responding to the statistic above, she said, “…a majority of those who responded feel their opinions or voices were silenced. I now sorta believe Presentation does censor some material. On the whole, I am alarmed at the limitation of free speech even though this is a private school.”
A few anonymous surveyed students also clarified that Presentation is welcome to diverse opinions as long as they are in agreement with the mainstream, liberal opinion. On the contrary, another argued that Presentation welcomes all beliefs, and those that are censored are so because they are harmful to members of the community.
Whether the stark reality of student expression at Presentation is not viewed as a “positive performance” or is a “complaint to the administration,” these statistics suggest that a large degree of diversity exists in students’ perceptions and experiences of their freedom of speech at our school. This calls for a review of contradictory administrative policies as well as recognition of the inherent diversity at our school in order to “improve various aspects of the school.”
As the Student Press Law Center writes, “If it were not for the First Amendment and its protections for the free exercise of religion, many of the schools themselves might not exist. It would seem incumbent upon religious schools to advocate the guarantees that protect journalists as much as themselves.”