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Alarming proposal would punish K-12 students for any written communication unrelated to class

collage of sad children in the rain

Is it rain, or are they teardrops?

Welcome to Pennridge School District in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where students will soon have to toss their rights in the trash as soon as they hop onto the bus.

An outrageous proposal at the school district an hour north of Philadelphia would quite literally prohibit students from sharing any written expression unrelated to school activities.

Under the policy, students would face punishment for handing out birthday invitations, wearing a button or shirt supporting a political candidate or cause, loaning a magazine, or showing a friend an Instagram post at lunch. 

FIRE is joining the National Coalition Against Censorship to fight the proposal and protect the expressive rights of the 6,800 students in the district.

Under the proposed policy, students would be prohibited from sharing “any printed, technological or written materials, regardless of form, source, or authorship, that are not prepared as part of the curricular or extracurricular program of the district, including but not limited to fliers, invitations, announcements, pamphlets, posters, online discussion areas and digital bulletin boards, personal websites and the like.”

Facially unconstitutional restrictions on expression are unconstitutional, regardless of whether or how they are enforced.

That applies to students in class, at school-sponsored events, and even on school transportation. 

Sounds ridiculous, right? A school would never punish a student for, say, giving someone a valentine, right? Think again! District Superintendent David Bolton admitted the policy would reach the classic classroom tradition at a June committee meeting

“I promise that the intent of this will not be valentines at elementary school,” he said. “I promise. Although, technically, it may very well.” 

And he’s right: The plain language of the policy does cover valentines. Facially unconstitutional restrictions on expression are unconstitutional, regardless of whether or how they are enforced. Students should not have to rely on the goodwill of administrators to abstain from enforcing the policy unreasonably. Any restrictions imposed by a K-12 institution must be narrowly tailored and respect students’ First Amendment rights.

As written, the policy can’t be squared with the First Amendment or previous Supreme Court rulings on student expression. As a result of the policy’s staggering scope, students would be subject to punishment for engaging in protected speech of all kinds.

This policy must be rejected by the school board, and resoundingly condemned by those who value free expression.

FIRE Legal Director Will Creeley said the policy “would present First Amendment problems at a state prison, let alone a public school.” Creeley wrote the letter FIRE sent yesterday with NCAC, calling on Bolton to reject the unconstitutional restrictions. 

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is also speaking out: Legal Director Witold “Vic” Walczak told WHYY, “I’m almost speechless at just how overbroad this policy is,” and said that the policy goes “way further than anything I have ever seen.”

We recognize that not everyone on the school board is a First Amendment expert, but the policy, as written, has dramatic First Amendment implications for the students they’re charged with educating. As our letter argues:

Rather than attempt to wall off students from the world of ideas outside of Pennridge, we encourage you to instead educate your young citizens about how best to productively participate in our nation’s democratic give-and-take, evaluating arguments instead of censoring them. Doing so would provide students with a civic education of lasting value and vital importance.

This policy must be rejected by the school board, and resoundingly condemned by those who value free expression. 

In need of First Amendment resources for teachers? The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has you covered. Our "First Things First" First Amendment textbook for college undergraduates explores the fundamentals of modern American free speech law. Meanwhile, our K-12 First Amendment curriculum modules help educators enrich and supplement their existing instruction on First Amendment and freedom of expression issues in middle and high school classrooms. Explore for even more First Amendment educational resources.

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