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The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

Debating free speech and hate: new bill sparks school committee discussions

At a School Committee Policy Review Subcommittee meeting on April 9, members of the committee and district leaders met on Zoom to discuss a proposed hate speech policy that has been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM). By a 3-1 vote, the subcommittee approved the policy, which now heads to the full committee.
At a School Committee Policy Review Subcommittee meeting on April 9, members of the committee and district leaders met on Zoom to discuss a proposed hate speech policy that has been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM). By a 3-1 vote, the subcommittee approved the policy, which now heads to the full committee.

In recent weeks, student protests on campuses across the country have raised questions about what conduct is and is not acceptable at schools. While the protests themselves have not spilled into Brookline, their messages have crept into the lives of many students through social media, news media and even local politics.

Since Oct. 7, School Committee Chair David Pearlman said he has received significant community input – particularly from Muslim, Jewish, Arab and Israeli students – that hate speech is a problem in Brookline schools. In response, Pearlman is championing a proposed hate speech policy that has proven to be contentious.

Although the policy passed out of the School Committee’s Policy Review Subcommittee with only one dissenting vote, it has been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM) for its lack of clarity and overreaching scope. In a letter submitted to the School Committee on April 25, the ACLUM said the proposed policy would violate students’ First Amendment right to free speech, which includes hate speech.

No other school district in the Boston area has a hate speech policy, according to Pearlman.

As the policy advances to the full School Committee, committee members will have to grapple with the difficult balance of protecting free speech while also creating a school environment where everyone can feel safe. Already, the committee has needed to make adjustments, according to Pearlman, who chairs the Policy Review Subcommittee in addition to the full committee.

At the subcommittee’s first hearing on the policy in March, members of the committee raised concerns that the policy allowed for a “disciplinary response” to hate speech, while the First Amendment prohibits government entities, including public schools, from punishing speech. Pearlman, who drafted the initial version of the policy, was open to feedback, and brought an updated version of the policy to a subcommittee meeting in April.

“The very first draft [of the policy], the input that we received, some people were concerned that it sounded like the purpose of this [policy] is to punish, and to be very much inclined toward discipline,” Pearlman said. “We wanted to move away from that with [the second] draft to show that it’s more about the educational component, principles of restorative justice and remediation.”

Since the policy was first reviewed by the subcommittee in early March, the entire “Remediation” section was removed, while “Vigilance”, “Education”, “Investigation” and “Data Reporting” sections were added. Other changes were made as well. For example, the second draft clarifies who the policy applies to, and includes a longer introduction and explanation of itself.

If approved, the updated draft of the policy would establish some new principles. First: it would make everyone “employed by, attending, or otherwise affiliated with the Public Schools of Brookline” a mandated reporter of hate speech. Data collected through these reports will be stored in a database.

It then sets forth that all reported incidents of hate speech will be investigated in accordance with bullying procedures. It would also require that all school employees be provided with annual training in preventing, identifying and responding to hate speech.

Importantly, the policy explicitly applies to student speech and behavior outside of school, citing the 2019 Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office Guidance on Schools’ Legal Obligations to Prevent and Address Hate and Bias Incidents, which states that schools are responsible for addressing off-campus bullying and harassment that has serious effects on a victim at school.

The policy defines hate speech as any pejorative communication through speech, gesture, illustration, writing, and/or electronic communication that expresses, “at its root”, hate on the basis of ethnicity, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or “other like grouping”. The definition states that hate speech can be explicit or implicit, plain or subtle, intentional or unintentional and that it might be expressed in a non-threatening manner.

Steven Ehrenberg, the only member of the subcommittee who voted “no” on the policy, said he is concerned about the fact that the policy does not take context into account.

“I thought that the definition of hate speech suggested that hate speech was inherent in the speech itself, not in the intention or reception of that speech,” Ehrenberg said. “I can imagine cases where something that’s designated as hate speech, like a slur, can be used in a self-deprecating manner, in a friendly, or familiar way with people within the group that it would be a slur against… That could be overheard and reported as hate speech.”

Ehrenberg also voiced concerns about the policy applying broadly to speech that is not intentionally hateful but struggled to draw a line between what speech should be investigated and what should be treated as an opportunity to teach students.

“We want students to learn from their mistakes, not to suffer for them,” Ehrenberg said. “But sometimes speech is really hateful and we need to punish them.”

Pearlman said he thought Ehrenberg’s point about self-deprecating language was interesting, but thought the mandatory investigation would help parse self-deprecating language from hateful speech targeted at others. He also said that he felt it was important that the policy applied to all hate speech, regardless of whether or not it was intentionally hateful.

“Sometimes a person who is uttering words that are hateful might not intend for it to be hateful,” Pearlman said. “But it’s still dangerous language to be utilizing. And there are still others who might learn about what was said or overhear it, and then they become impacted.”

The ACLUM, however, submitted a letter to the School Committee on April 25 – 16 days after the subcommittee hearing on the second version of the policy – asserting that the policy’s broad definition of hate speech, and even its mandatory investigation into reports of hate speech pose concerns for students’ civil rights. The letter cited Massachusetts court precedent that student speech can only be censored if it causes “disruption or disorder within the school,” or constitutes bullying under state law. In the letter, the ACLUM asserted that the policy wrongly assumes that all hateful speech causes disruption or disorder at a school and that it fails to require that speech causes such disruption in order to be subject to investigation. The letter also argued that the proposed policy was too vague, and could be interpreted broadly.

While Pearlman declined to comment on the ACLUM’s letter, he told Cypress reporters via text message that the town’s legal council and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office is reviewing the policy to see whether they suggest further changes.

Ehrenberg, who has been on the School Committee for nearly three years, said a hate speech policy was one of the first things he wanted to do when he was elected. But the more he looked into it, the more he realized how complex the issue was.

“I ended up feeling like I didn’t see how to solve it via policy,” Ehrenberg said. “But then I thought this last version was interesting because I liked the idea of having a hate speech policy that was about reducing it rather than reacting to it. That seemed like a different approach to me.”

The data reporting aspect of the policy garnered broad support from committee members. Pearlman said he hopes the data can help district leaders identify where hate speech is coming from and who it’s targeted towards so that it can be better addressed and prevented. At a subcommittee meeting in March he noted that the district has very little reported data on hate speech, despite the fact that he often hears about it at public comment periods and from parents.

“We really want to be able to have some very robust data points that we can be able to look at so we can help any trends and other patterns in the use of hate speech,” Pearlman said. “We don’t want people to be shy about reporting, so by making it mandated, that should hopefully increase the data that we’re able to gather.”

At the same subcommittee meeting, Claire Galloway-Jones, the district’s Executive Director of Educational Equity – one of the people who is immediately notified when an incident report is filed – said that students have communicated to her that they don’t feel safe reporting hate speech. She said students have told her they’re afraid of retaliation from other students. That’s why the district doesn’t have much data, she said.

“We don’t deny that it’s something that’s happening. It’s just not being reported,” Galloway-Jones said. “And I don’t know how much more we can encourage them because they don’t feel safe enough to report.”

Senior Zyad Baliamoune, co-president of the Muslim Student Alliance said he experiences hate speech both online and at school. He said the speech he hears has gotten more hateful and more noticeable since Oct. 7. While he expressed enthusiastic support for the idea of a hate speech policy, he said he has reservations about a mandated reporting system.

“Sometimes you’re trying to get something off your chest, you’re trying to speak to an adult you can trust. And if they have to report that, it doesn’t sit right with me,” Baliamoune said. “If you want it to be reported, you can go get it reported. But for you to not have a say in the matter, I don’t really agree with it.”

Senior Yuval Levy, who played a leadership role in creating the Jewish advisory, and also said she experiences hate speech, was supportive of a hate speech policy in principle. But Levy expressed concerns about mandated reporting as well.

“The last thing that I think anyone wants is for people to feel like everything that they say is walking on eggshells,” Levy said. “And I think what that means is that, before escalating something immediately and forcing teachers to report something, is maybe requiring teachers to have conversations first and figuring out what their intentions were.”

Ehrenberg said he thinks the policy is a worthwhile endeavor. But he said it will be hard to get right, and he wants to make sure it’s executed as best as it can be.

“It’s a worthy challenge. I hope we move it forward. And at the same time I think it requires a lot of precision,” Ehrenberg said. “My no vote was not a vote against hate speech policy in general, but an interest in making it strong before it advances to full discussion. I didn’t want to endorse the current version.”

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