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Students wrestle with free-speech rights, responsibilities.

Byline: Celine Swenson-Harris

As Americans, we should not take for granted our greatest right, freedom of expression. When we stop educating ourselves about our rights, we risk losing the power to express our opinions and make our views heard. We lose our ability to have a say in the future of our country.

As a member of the South Eugene High School American Civil Liberties Union student club, I am thankful for all the opportunities I've had to express my views and improve my understanding of my rights, including helping plan the Student Free Speech Forum.

This forum will feature high school students discussing the issues of religious expression in the classroom, new technology and students' free speech, free speech on campus, and hate speech. Superintendent George Russell will serve as moderator.

The idea for the forum came out of our own concerns as students about our free speech rights on campus. A lot has changed since 1969, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld students' basic free speech rights in Tinker vs. Des Moines. New technology presents new challenges on campus, and students are exposed to diverse opinions that may challenge them personally.

As our student club explored these issues, we developed strong, and sometimes differing, opinions. But we all agreed that talking about these issues openly was important, and that engaging the community in this discussion would help strengthen our democratic society.

Individual freedom of expression affects our everyday lives. A good example is the recent repeal of Oregon's long-standing law against teachers wearing religious garb in school. When the state Legislature repealed this ban, it did not engage students in the debate. My feeling is that people should have the right to express their religion; teachers shouldn't be prevented from wearing religious clothing if they feel their beliefs require it.

Our ACLU student club debated this. Some members supported the ban, arguing that allowing teachers to wear religious garb in school would unduly influence students. This was the position of the Oregon ACLU. Having this debate reminded me that the greatest part of freedom of expression is that we all have a right to hold different beliefs; no one has to feel the same way as others because everyone has the right to disagree.

Students' rights and new technology is another area that presents real challenges to students and administrators. Facebook and cell phones haven't been around very long, so there aren't many clear rules to guide teachers and students. Students post their personal opinions on Facebook or send them to friends via text message. Sometimes these postings are hurtful, or could even be viewed as hate speech.

A troubling question for students is whether teachers and school staff should be allowed to look at a student's Facebook page or other Internet posts and take disciplinary action based on what they see there.

This is a challenging issue for our ACLU club, because most of us think that the school should protect students from bullying - including cyber-bullying - but we also think students have a right to express themselves. As young civil libertarians, it just doesn't feel right to us that the school can tell students what they can and can't post online.

One of the most challenging issues facing students is hate speech and the limits to free speech on campus. These topics affect students' abilities to explore sensitive topics such as race or sexuality, while still ensuring a safe environment for every student.

The Tinker decision established that students have freedom of expression as long as they don't substantially disrupt the learning environment.

But there is disagreement, even among students, about what qualifies as "substantially disruptive." Schools must set some boundaries around student speech to ensure that individual students feel safe participating in class and walking down the hallway. But how far should schools go in setting those boundaries?

These are the challenges we all face as we try to balance our rights and our responsibilities. As students with a lot of freedom, we face that responsibility every day.

Freedom of expression is empowerment; those who know their rights gain the ability to speak out for their beliefs.

I think it's especially important for young people to educate themselves about their rights, and for the community to have a continuing discussion of these issues. Our teachers and parents also have a responsibility to help students navigate these questions.

But as the future leaders of our state and our country, it is really up to us - today's high school students - to work through these questions while still upholding the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution.

Celine Swenson-Harris, a junior at South Eugene High School, will participate in the students' "Stand Up & Speak Out" forum from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Eugene School District Education Center, 200 N. Monroe St.
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Title Annotation:Local Opinion
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 29, 2010
Words:807
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