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|NUMBER 183||THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS||APRIL 2001|
|Appeals Court Affirms Students' Free Speech|
In ruling for the plaintiffs, the three-judge panel unanimously found no "harassment exemption" to the First Amendment's free-speech clause. The court specifically objected to the policy's inclusion of a "catch-all" category called "other personal characteristics," which covered appearance, clothing, hobbies, values, and social skills.
"By prohibiting disparaging speech directed at a person's 'values,' the policy strikes at the heart of moral and political discourse - the lifeblood of constitutional self-government (and democratic education) and the core concern of the First Amendment," the court ruled in its 29-page opinion. "That speech about 'values' may offend is not cause for its prohibition, but rather the reason for its protection: a principal function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. No court or legislature has ever suggested that unwelcome speech directed at another's 'values' may be prohibited under the rubric of anti-discrimination."
Saxe was represented by Attorney Brian J. Brown of the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy in Tupelo, Miss. Brown told the Washington Times (2-16-01) after the ruling: "This is a resounding bell of freedom ringing in Philadelphia, reaffirming that indeed, students do not leave their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate. It's hard to get more Orwellian than the speech code that was struck down."
The decision is binding in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but is expected to have national implications since many school districts across the country have adopted anti-harassment policies.