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Proposed Ind. bill could limit K-12 student free speech

POSTED AT 11:56 PM ON Feb. 15, 2012  (UPDATED AT 10:10 PM ON Feb. 19, 2012)

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Indiana students could find themselves suspended or expelled for off-campus speech if a new bill passes this legislative session.

HB 1169, the Restoring School Discipline Act, was sponsored by Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford.

 The bill would allow Indiana public schools to punish students who do or say anything that might “reasonably be considered to be an interference with school purposes or an educational function,” including otherwise legal speech off campus.

The bill passed the Indiana House of Representatives on Jan. 30.

It then appeared before the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development on Wednesday.

Students can already be reprimanded by their schools for illegal activities, such as trafficking illegal substances.

 But HB 1169 would omit the word “illegal” from current law.

 According to the bill, this would include weekends, holidays and other school breaks, including summer vacation.

“All students deserve a safe and conductive learning environment,” Koch said in a press release. “In limiting grounds for suspension and expulsion to only ‘unlawful’ conduct, current law ties the hands of school officials to effectively deal with dangerous and disruptive behavior, including cyber bullying.”

However, the bill does not directly mention its target is to prevent cyber bullying.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., said he finds the bill problematic, particularly in accord with the Constitution’s First Amendment.

“If the bill becomes law, schools will be able to completely shut down the discussion of any topic they find disagreeable, since it is almost always possible to argue that stirring up public dissent ‘interferes’ with school purposes,” LoMonte said in an article on the SPLC website.

“If HB 1169 becomes law, it will not be long before we see principals suspending the girl whose weekend wardrobe ‘interferes’ with the school’s ability to promote a
professional appearance or whose fondness for rap music ‘interferes’ with the teaching of proper grammar.”

But John Ellis, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, backs the bill, which he said in a press release will better protect Indiana’s children.

“Because many threats and intimidating behaviors are now passed through technological means, the current student discipline statutes which speak to ‘unlawful’ activity are outdated,” Ellis said. “This bill stands up for student rights regardless of where the violation of student conduct rules originated.”

Mark Keierleber

 

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