Christine Stuart photo
Sean Glenn of Simsbury High School (Christine Stuart photo)

“I do not believe that speech being offensive is adequate grounds for prohibiting it,” Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, told the Judiciary Committee Friday.

“This is dangerous ground we are walking when we do so,” he said. “Free speech is inextricably linked with free thought. You can not have one without the other.”

LeBeau, a retired school teacher, helped author the bill after reading news reports about what happened to a Burlington student who voiced her discontent with school administrators on her personal blog and was later barred from serving as class secretary.

Sean Glenn, a junior at Simsbury High School and the Greater Academy of the Arts, said outside the hearing room Friday that she followed the news involving the Burlington student—Avery Doninger. Glenn said schools should be promoting free speech, not disparaging it.

Glenn, who has a Facebook page of which her parents are aware, said she’s confident that if she were to say something inappropriate off school grounds—on or off the Internet—her parents would seek to discipline her for it.

“We want to be able to express what we feel about the world,” Glenn said. “We want to do it without fear of retribution.”

She said she understands that students sometimes say things somebody else may perceive as offensive, but that school administrators in Burlington should have talked to Doninger about discretion instead of punishing her.

Judiciary Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, said what’s offensive to one person may not be offensive to another.

“When it’s directed at one person and they take personal umbrage at it even though it might not have any consequence in the learning environment, seems to me then you’re quickly moving into the realm of declaring one form of speech as more important than another and that you’re the arbiter of what happens outside of the school environment,” he said.

School boards don’t expect their administrators to troll blogs in search of problems for which they can impose discipline, Patrice McCarthy of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said.

CABE, along with the Connecticut Education Association, submitted written testimony in opposition to the bill arguing it would create a new standard for student speech.

Christopher Hankins, CEA’s legal counsel, said in written testimony to the committee that the bill “is not necessary, since most of its subject matter has already been addressed through case law.”

But LeBeau thinks it’s a gray area and wants to create a “bright line” when it comes to students’ freedom of speech.

Patrick Doyle, the education manager at the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union agrees.

“I commend the committee for putting the bill forward, but can’t help feeling a little disheartened it has come to this,” he said in his written testimony to the committee. “40 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court declared that students do not ‘shed their rights at the school house gate’. But, the Avery Doninger case has shown in Connecticut, students actually ‘shed’ their rights far before they arrive at school.”

LeBeau authored the legislation before US District Court Judge Mark Kravitz ruled on the on the case in favor of Burlington school officials.

In his ruling, Kravitz noted that times have changed since 1979 when Thomas v. Board of Education set boundaries for school officials regulating off-campus speech.

“Today, students are connected to each other through email, instant messaging, blogs, social networking sites, and text messages,” Kravitz wrote. “Off-campus speech can become on-campus speech with the click of a mouse.”

Kravitz concluded that the Burlington school administrators were within their rights to punish Doninger, because “if courts and legal scholars cannot discern the contours of First Amendment protections for student Internet speech, then it is certainly unreasonable to expect school administrators, such as Defendants, to predict where the line between on- and off-campus speech will be drawn in this new digital era.”

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