Is there such a thing as Free Speech in Schools?


Many schools are currently under attack by conservative parents for what is being taught in schools. Next month they might be under attack by left-wing parents. Is there such a thing as free speech in schools?


Recently a School board in Tennessee banned from its school district a Pulitzer prize-winning book called Maus in which Jews were mice and Nazis were cats. One of the reasons for the ban was that it was  seen to be pornographic because it showed a graphic of a naked mouse with a breast showing. Can that be pornographic? The idea was that the mouse represented Jews and a cat that looked vicious represented Nazis. It was the author’s way of making the notion of the holocaust graphic. The parents also felt that the book made their children uncomfortable. Should a book about the Holocaust not make people uncomfortable? I would be more tempted to ban a book about the Holocaust that made young students comfortable.

All of this reminds me a bit about the recent film Don’t Look Up where scientists were going on television talk show to warn the world about the impending disastrous collision of a comet with earth that would lead to the destruction of all or most life on earth. The talk show hosts explained to the scientists that in the brief time they had to explain the phenomenon they should “keep it light and fun.” Is that what we want?

In Florida, a committee advanced a bill that would restrict discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools because that is popular in conservative circles. The bill bans discussing these issues in primary schools but also restricts how these things can be discussed in other grades too if they are deemed “not age-inappropriate.” Any parent will be able to sue the school for compensation if they are harmed if they believe such discussions took place. No doubt such legislation will make teachers reluctant to discuss such issues in school. Is that a good thing? Should parents not have a say about what is taught in their schools? Or do students have rights to learn? Interesting questions.


Many American schools are banning discussions about critical race theory by which they mean any discussions that might tend to make their children think less of Americans and their treatment of racial minorities. Should such discussions not be welcomed rather than banned? Are such discussions too uncomfortable for adults or even children? Don’t we want our children to learn such things?

In the US many of the attacks on free speech are found in schools. Since January of 2020 Republican lawmakers in 41 states (if I counted correctly) have introduced 156 laws that limit how teachers can speak to their students about race, sexual orientation and gender in schools. As Jennifer Given who teaches history in New Hampshire, one of those 41 or so states, says these are scary times to be a teacher. She might be sued for what she says in class. Why do so many people no longer trust their teachers? As a result of these restrictions Given said “many teachers are self-censoring” and avoiding speaking about certain sensitive subjects. Don’t we want our students to learn about sensitive subjects? Even if the teacher’s views vary from our own? Don’t we want our students exposed to other ideas? After all they might then be able to teach us a thing or two? In the Hanover School Division in Steinbach they attempted to stop teachers in some cases from talking about “sensitive subjects” such as LGBTQ topics. Is that acceptable? What if discussions are merely excluded from early years in school?

Yet if parents are entitled to know what is being taught to their children in schools and object to things they  don’t want the teachers to teach to their children, they have that right and  to that extent their free speech is lost. But only in schools. They can say what they want out of school. Is it that simple?

Students of course have no right to free speech. Or at least we didn’t when I went to school.

In New Hampshire, a conservative group is offering a $500 bounty to anyone who turns in a teacher who violates their new law that limits what teachers can say about racism and sexism! As Given said, “The ghost of Senator McCarthy is alive and well in some of our statehouse hallways.” She might actually lose her license to teach, rendering her unemployable perhaps in any jurisdiction not only her own. As the CBS host pointed out, “But this is New Hampshire the land of ‘live free or die.’” Now these are tricky free speech issues because teachers have to some extent always been restricted in what they could talk about in schools. For example school boards decide when sex education is taught (or not). Employers too can limit what their employees say in their workplace. Does that violate free speech?

There are many questions worth pursuing here. I look forward to trying to tackle them. I would like to hear your views too.



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