Kalish: Bill Of Rights Day

Mar 18, 2015

I’ve been reviewing cases about student speech rights. Cases about wearing arm bands to protest the Vietnam War, about journalistic freedom for student newspapers… about whether a kid can be punished for holding up a “Bong Hits for Jesus” banner at an Olympic Torch relay.

I’m doing this because soon I’ll be heading to Castleton State College to join 85 Rutland High School seniors for a bi-annual conference on the Bill of Rights, hosted by the VT-ACLU.

I’ve done this before and it’s fun. I’ll be one of a group of Vermont attorneys to run discussion sections with the students and their teachers on topics ranging from privacy and technology to student searches.  This year, my topic is Free Speech and Expression – one of my favorites.

I'm particularly excited this time, because these students recently accomplished something pretty remarkable.  Using their speech rights, they effected real-world change.

Here’s what happened.

Apple’s After School app had become wildly popular among high school students across the country.  Apple said it was for "Funny Anonymous School News For Confessions and Compliments," but it had also become an extremely effective tool for threats and cyber-bullying.

After experiencing a number of nasty posts within their community, Rutland High students decided to do something about it.

They petitioned to have their school’s message board taken down.  They wrote to Apple, asking that the app be removed from the App Store.  And they enacted a “Positive Post-It” campaign, covering windows and bulletin boards throughout their school with notes like “You Are Amazing Just the Way You Are.”

And it worked!  Rutland High’s message board was taken down.  Apple removed After School from its App Store.  And the halls of Rutland High School were filled with messages of kindness.

Cyber-bullying is a real problem.  But while the “adults in the room” tend to focus on punishment and criminalization, these kids saw an opportunity for something far more empowering.  These students believed in their ability to effect change through their own acts of speech and citizenship. And they knew that words of cruelty can be drowned out by a flood of kindness when we act positively, as a community.

So, even though I’ll be ready to explain to these kids what the courts have said about free speech and expression in schools, I suspect they already know quite a bit about the power of speech in our new, digital age.