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Indiana Bill Would Allow Schools To Punish Students For Off-Campus Behavior, Online Speech

Student Free Speech

First Posted: 02/16/2012 2:59 pm Updated: 02/16/2012 2:59 pm

A bill that would allow schools to punish students for off-campus activities -- even while at the mall on weekends -- reached Indiana's state Senate Committee on Education and Career Development Wednesday. The bill passed the state House Jan. 30.

House Bill 1169, the Restoring School Discipline Act, would permit schools to suspend or expel students for engaging in activities away from school and after hours that "may reasonably be considered to be an interference with school purposes or an educational function."

Under existing state law, schools can seek punitive measures if students engage in "unlawful activity" that interferes with schools or education functions. But HB 1169, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Eric Koch, strikes the term "unlawful," allowing for punishment of any off-campus activity deemed to be an interference.

The bill reads:

A student may be suspended or expelled for engaging in activity on or off school grounds if:
  1. The activity may reasonably be considered to be an interference with school purposes or an educational function; or
  2. The student's removal is necessary to restore order or protect persons on school property; including an activity during weekends, holidays, other school breaks, and the summer period when a student may not be attending classes or other school functions.

"All students deserve a safe and conductive learning environment," Koch said in a statement last month, according to TheBanner.com. "In limiting grounds for suspension and expulsion to only 'unlawful' conduct, current law ties the hands of school officials to effectively deal with dangerous and disruptive behavior, including cyber bullying."

But the bill doesn't directly target bullying -- not once is the term used in the document -- and critics are concerned the legislation could challenge a student's First Amendment rights to free speech.

"If the bill becomes law, schools will be able to completely shut down the discussion of any topic they find disagreeable, since it is almost always possible to argue that stirring up public dissent 'interferes' with school purposes," Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, writes. "It will not be long before we see principals suspending the girl whose weekend wardrobe 'interferes' with the school's ability to promote a professional appearance or whose fondness for rap music 'interferes' with the teaching of proper grammar."

Koch tells the SPLC, however, that he "wouldn't knowingly promote anything that would infringe First Amendment rights."

Several states have already adopted or proposed policies that allow schools to punish students for disruptive behavior off campus and away from school. West Virginia recently adopted an anti-bullying policy that would punish students with detention or suspension for "vulgar or offensive speech" online if it disrupts school.

In a move that would counter Koch's Indiana bill, the U.S. Supreme Court last month let stand rulings that said schools could not discipline two Pennsylvania students for MySpace parodies of their principals that the students created at home.

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Filed by Emmeline Zhao  |