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Parents sue New York school district over speech policy

A group of parents claim the speech policy censors conservative viewpoints

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Parents sue New York school district over speech policy

A group of parents sued a school district in southern New York on Wednesday, alleging the school’s speech policies violate students’ First Amendment rights and discriminate against conservative viewpoints.

The advocacy group Parents Defending Education filed the lawsuit against Croton-Harmon Union Free School District on behalf of three sets of unnamed parents in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The district serves the area around Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

The parents, who hold Biblical views on marriage, gender, and abortion, claim the school district’s policies censor their children’s speech on these topics and force them to affirm opposing beliefs.

Croton-Harmon’s speech policies prohibit sexual and gender-based harassment, bar “unwelcome” speech related to gender identity or sexual orientation, and punish speech that other students find “unwelcome,” “offensive,” “disparaging,” “degrading,” “derogatory,” “intimidating,” or “demeaning,” according to the lawsuit. These policies can be implemented against student speech both on or off school grounds.

The parents argue these policies permit the district to police the speech of its more than 1,600 students. Students could face punishment for sharing deeply held beliefs that do not align with the district on topics such as traditional marriage, gender identity, support for Israel, and immigration, according to the lawsuit.

The parents worry that their children will face discipline if they speak freely. Some of the children have expressed a desire to attend a different school where they can speak openly, but the family can’t “afford the financial strain that would impose,” according to the lawsuit.

The district’s policies violate the students’ free speech rights, said Michele Exner, senior adviser at Parents Defending Education. The school restricts speech on subjective political issues that students have a right to voice various opinions on, she added.

“[The] school policy is essentially threatening students, right? That if you use terms that are not dictated okay … then they risk the punishment,” Exner said. “There is clear Supreme Court precedent that says that when a child shows up to their schools and their classrooms, they don’t give up their constitutional rights.”

The school board has essentially picked a right and wrong side to these issues and requires students to adhere to their viewpoint through its policies, she said. For instance, the policies allow for punishing students for not calling other students by their preferred pronouns.

“The Constitution prohibits the state from taking sides in debates on controversial and sensitive topics,” the complaint alleges. “The First Amendment gives both sides the freedom to promote their beliefs in the marketplace of ideas, without the government tipping the scales.”

The lawsuit adds that the school also violates parents’ fundamental right to guide the upbringing of their children.

Exner said the lawsuit aims to get the district’s policies rescinded and reworked to ensure students’ free speech rights are protected.

WORLD reached out to Croton-Harmon for comment but did not receive a response prior to publication.

Parents Defending Education has also pursued similar cases, Exner said, adding that some schools across the country use similar policies to restrict speech.

The Virginia-based nonprofit argued in a federal appeals court in Cincinnati this February against the speech policies of the Columbus Olentangy Local School District. The advocacy group claimed the rule barring students from “misgendering” each other was unconstitutional. The case is still pending.

In Iowa, the organization garnered a win in February against the Linn-Mar Community School District and its speech policy that punished students who “misgender” others and chilled free speech. The two parties reached a settlement, with the school agreeing to rescind and never reinstate its policy.

Other families are calling out school speech policies in courts, as well.

In March 2023, Nichols Middle School officials in Massachusetts told then-12-year-old Liam Morrison to leave school after he refused to stop wearing a T-shirt that read, “There are only two genders.”

The student and his family sued the school in a lower court, alleging Morrison has a constitutional right to voice his opinions at school through his attire. The family lost the case and appealed to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Last week, the federal appeals court ruled in favor of the school. The student’s family will likely appeal again.

School boards nationwide are policing speech well beyond what they should, Exner said.

“As Americans, we have the privilege of having our constitutional rights, and students have those as well,” Exner said. “They should not have to shed those as soon as they step foot in classrooms.”

Liz Lykins

Liz is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


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