There is an assumption among some in our community that the there is an absolute right to freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech (noun): “The power or right to express one’s opinions without censorship, restraint, or legal penalty.”
“Free speech is under serious pressure in Australia. The state of law is disappointing for a Western liberal democracy. The state of preparedness to defend the principle of freespeech is poor. The threats are many, and growing, and often come from those we should expect to be among free speech’s defenders.” Tim Wilson Australian Human Rights Commissioner. 2015
I don’t wish to appear politically partisan and I cannot speak for the wider Australian community but at St Columba Anglican School there are restrictions on freedom of speech, the same as there are in restrictions on freedom of action. Put in a simple Q & A form:
Q. “Don’t I have a right to express my opinion at school?”
A. You do not have unfettered freedom to express yourself at our School, when your speech wounds, hurts or degrades others.
At St Columba we have a duty of care that means we will not accept words that threaten, humiliate, degrade or damage others. The limits are clearly stated for anyone who chooses to join our community.
“The School is a community school in the sense that its doors are open to all, so long as they are sympathetic to and support the School’s Christian foundation.”
Our Staff Handbook clearly spells out that, as representatives and employees of the School, there are restrictions on what can be said by staff and the forums in which things can be said.
On the other hand, we are also unwilling to allow people to remain unchallenged when they slander our staff or our School.
Our Parent Code of Conduct makes it clear that other members of our community are restricted in the language they can use:
In order to provide our community with a safe and nurturing environment, the school will not accept the following behaviours:
- disruptive or threatening behaviour toward any member of the school community
- use of phone, email, text message or letter to threaten or defame
- the use of language that includes swearing, profanity or aggression.
The School expressly forbids:
- wearing clothing with offensive language or insignia.
Parents can ensure they abide by the laws and the School’s expectations of its parents, by complying with the following:
- The School, its staff and members of its community should not be mentioned or discussed in a negative or defamatory way.
- Photographs of students in School uniform represent the School and its students, and should not be posted if they have the potential to bring negative connotations towards the Schools or its staff and students.
And so it is for our students.
We acknowledge the right of each student enrolled at our School to feel safe and valued. We know that feeling safe allows students to more effectively engage in learning and this often results in improved achievement.
When the words of others call into question that sense of safety or belonging they are a serious breach of our stated values.
Any student whose mode or manner of speaking or choice of words breaches the expectations of the school for members of the community to respect the rights of others to feel a safe and valued member of our School can expect to find that the School will not tolerate their “right” to free speech.
In a world post the Christchurch atrocity, the words from the SPLC after a racially based shooting in the USA now ring true to us in the southern hemisphere:
“Assured of the supremacy of his race and frustrated by the inferiority of his achievements, he binges online for hours every day, self-medicating, slowly sipping a cocktail of rage. He gradually gains acceptance in this online birthing den of self-described ‘lone wolves,’ but he gets no relief, no practical remedies, no suggestions to improve his circumstances. He just gets angrier.And then he gets a gun.”
I am unapologetic if our School’s attitude offends those who see the right to free speech overriding other rights.
At St Columba our duty of care for our students and other members of our community is of the highest order among our priorities, and if that restricts someone from expressing their sexist, racist, discriminatory, hateful or threatening views on our campus, so be it.
Hate speech has no place in our community.
Mr Terry Muldoon
Principal, St Columba Anglican School