Caesar Rodney schools juggle free speech, safety concerns

CAMDEN — Was it blatant censorship or well-intentioned concern for student safety?

Or perhaps some measure of both?

There’s plenty of discussion these days when it comes to guns and schools — in Delaware and nationwide.

The discourse sometimes evokes highly divergent views from many angles, too.

After significant public criticism from some students, parents, media and alumni, the Caesar Rodney School District pledged this week to listen to its pupils while striving to keep them safe as well.

The district drew ire for recently deleting some posts from its official Facebook page regarding the upcoming National School Walkout on March 14.
That action unleashed further discussion about its possible motives.

Public reaction to the school’s actions were mixed — some supportive, others questioning — based on dozens of ensuing back and forth conversations through social media.

The local controversy arose as CR and school districts throughout the country reacted to students’ growing interest in issues from the mass shooting that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14.

CR Superintendent Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald cited safety concerns in an official message on Feb. 21 as reason for the district not to support allowing students and teachers to join the walkout movement.

On Friday through email, Dr. Fitzgerald re-stated that position while also emphasizing that “[w]e understand that our students want to have their voices heard and believe that they should.”

On that note, the superintendent said: “Our high school principal has met with student leaders to discuss their concerns. I believe that positive steps have been taken and that the discussions will continue.”

Among the ideas, Dr. Fitzgerald said, “was inviting our local legislators to a forum to hear our students concerns.”

State Reps. Trey Paradee, D-Cheswold, Jeffrey Spiegelman, R-Clayton, Charles Postles, R-Milford, and Lyndon Yearick, R-Dover South, will attend the forum on March 14 at Caesar Rodney High. RSVPs for other invitations are awaiting, Dr. Fitzgerald said.

Also, the superintendent acknowledged, “We recognize that some students may choose to ‘walk out’ on March 14. Once again our primary concern is for their safety.”

Opinions, discussions aplenty

The original stance last month attracted feedback on the district’s Facebook page, including discussion on what taking part would mean. After questions and criticism arose, CR spokesman Dave Chambers confirmed that he deleted some posts for what he described as safety concerns. That was first reported by radio station WDEL.

The ACLU of Delaware said it received reports of possible censorship by the CR School District, which included deleting critical comments and blocking some people from posting.

Karen Lantz, ACLU staff attorney and policy counsel, surmised, “Many government agencies create social media profiles to share information with the public. Because they are governments, there are certain free speech rules they must follow.

“When they allow the public to ask questions or express their views on those social media pages, they have created something free speech law calls a designated public forum.

“In such forums, the government cannot restrict speech based on the viewpoint of the speaker.”

Based on the expectation of free speech in the United States democracy, Ms. Lantz maintained, “[t]he government also cannot punish critics by blocking their access to government services — including official social media pages.

“The First Amendment prohibits the government from picking which views the public may express in a public forum, and prohibits punishing people for their political views. The right to criticize government officials and policies lies at the heart of the First Amendment and is fundamental to American democracy.

“These same rules apply whether the government creates a physical town hall or a digital one.”

On Thursday, the district issued an official statement online that read:

“The Caesar Rodney School District in light of recent concerns over the removal of certain social media posts wants to inform students, staff, and the public that measures were taken to address the concerns.”

Asked for specifics on the district’s response, Dr. Fitzgerald answered, “[w]hile we continue to develop our social media policy, our current standard has been to remove content deemed profane, lewd, violent or otherwise likely to disrupt the educational process.

“We ill continue to do all that we can to keep our students safe.”

Caesar Rodney School Board members Jessica Marelli and Mike Marasco referred a reporter to Dr. Fitzgerald.

In his February message, Dr. Fitzgerald acknowledged that value of students’ expression their opinions.

“Now, as a former Social Studies teacher, I am proud that students have paid attention in class and understand that they have a voice that needs to be heard,” he wrote.

“However, I cannot support allowing students to disrupt the educational setting by leaving their classrooms to ‘walk out’.

“Instead, I believe that they should write or call their legislators to let their opinions be known and most importantly to vote when they come of age.”

Some Facebook posts noted that concerns can be voiced at the district’s next school board meeting on March 20 at Fred Fifer III Middle School at 109 E. Camden Wyoming Avenue in Camden.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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