LISTEN: Student protests, free speech, and NYC public schools

A group of young people chant, hold signs while protesting outside.
Pro-Palestinian high school students join a student walk out to protest the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip on Oct. 25, 2023 in Manhattan's Washington Square Park. (Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images)

While protests over the Israel-Hamas war have gripped New York City college campuses, this week’s episode of P.S. Weekly looks at how high schoolers have reacted — and the student freedom of speech issues being raised.

P.S. Weekly is available on major podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Be sure to drop a review in your app or shoot an email to PSWeekly@chalkbeat.org. Tell us what you learned today or what you’re still wondering. We just might read your comment on a future episode.

P.S. Weekly is a collaboration between Chalkbeat and The Bell. Listen for new episodes Wednesdays this spring.


Read the full episode transcript below

HOST (Jose): Welcome to P.S. Weekly… the sound of the New York City school system.

HOST (Jose): PS Weekly is a collaboration between Chalkbeat New York and The Bell.

HOST (Jose): I’m your host this week, Jose Santana. I’m a Senior at Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health and Science Charter School in The Bronx.

Host (Jose): Today we’re diving into a super hot issue: the fiery protests in response to the Israel-Hamas war. We’ll go deep into how high schoolers have reacted, and the student freedom of speech issues it has raised.

But first! Here’s The Chalkbeat Bulletin….

I’m Alex Zimmerman, a reporter from Chalkbeat. Here’s a recap of the week’s biggest education stories:

TeenSpace, NYC’s free online therapy program for teens has seen nearly 7,000 signups in its first 6 months, officials said. The $26 million dollar initiative saw more demand in high-poverty neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn that have historically lacked widespread access to mental health services.

New York City schools announced a $2.5 million, privately-funded initiative to bring eighth-grade students to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan to learn more about the Holocaust. It’s part of a broader education plan, as top city officials face pressure to address antisemitism.

And the city’s Education Department will hold another remote learning emergency preparedness drill on June 6th, asking students to log in on a day off.

The optional drill is part of an effort to prevent another tech meltdown like the one that blocked many kids and teachers from logging in during a snow day in February.

To stay up to date on local education news throughout the week, go to chalkbeat.org/newsletters and sign up for the New York Daily Roundup.

HOST (Jose): Thanks Chalkbeat! Now, let’s get into today’s episode.

NEWS TAPE: Good morning. We are coming on the air with breaking news. Israel has declared it is at war… And Palestinians are already paying a heavy price, air strikes raining down on Gaza and a warning that electricity supplies to the strip will be cut.

HOST (Jose) : October 7th, 2023: a day that shook the world. On that day, the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched a deadly attack on Israeli civilians that led to a massive military response, including an ongoing months-long bombing campaign in Gaza that has claimed thousands of lives.

October 7th and the events that have followed have been some of the most discussed and debated topics in mainstream media. Students around the country have spoken up.

NEWS TAPE: Emotions running high at Columbia University, where protests enter their sixth day. It started last week with a pro-Palestinian encampment

HOST (Jose): Higher education institutions around the city–like Columbia, the New School, City College and NYU–have been criticized for their handling of student protesters.

HOST (Jose): While protests at public high schools have gotten less press, some have popped up around the city.

In a recent Congressional panel, NYC schools chancellor David Banks, testified about the education department’s response to recent protests. He said that dozens of students have been suspended and at least one school principal has been removed.

NEWS TAPE (Chancellor David Banks): We suspended a number of students who were the leaders at Hillcrest High School. Number one. Number two, we removed the principal of that school for lack of leadership and oversight. I don’t know how to make it much clearer. Okay, I condemn clearly what happened at Hillcrest was a complete act of antisemitism. It will not stand on my watch.

We’re not getting into that now — or stances on the conflict itself, but these protests have us wondering: What freedom of speech rights do students have at school? And what are the limits?

Our reporter Dorothy Ha spoke to students and free speech experts. Here’s the story…

Orlena: It’s hard because like, we’re all human, you know, and you want to be on the right side, but that’s not always possible or able, you know, you’re not able to determine that. So Yeah, it’s hard to know like how far to go, um, in this current climate. It’s a weird time.

NARR (Dorothy): This is Orlena Fella, a senior at the High School of Math, Science, and Engineering, better known as HSMSE. The high school is located on the City College campus in Harlem, and is one of the most prestigious schools in New York.

NARR (Dorothy): Orlena, like many high schoolers across the city, had been thinking lots about how the Israel-Hamas war has affected her and her classmates.

And in late April, the protests landed right at her school’s doorstep when pro-Palestinian activists set up an encampment at City College.

Orlena: It definitely started off very peaceful. It’s just sort of a gathering on the quad and they had like posters and events and speakers. Primarily their demands involved divestment from funding that was associated with Israel. And eventually police officers were called on to campus and it was disassembled.

NARR (Dorothy): City College administrators shut the campus down and limited entry except for “essential activities,” forcing HSMSE students to have a remote      learning day since they couldn’t come to school.

Orlena: …it became remote, which was definitely a weird experience going back to that given like the pandemic.

NARR (Dorothy): And when they returned… things didn’t necessarily feel the same. There was an overwhelming police presence that she and many of her peers had never experienced before.

Orlena: It’s weird to be surrounded by so many police and just, energy of like the absence of what was there and all of the uncomfortableness surrounding it because… it is such a sensitive issue.

NARR (Dorothy): Since then, Orlena says there’s been minimal political activism from HSMSE students.

Orlena: I do have friends that were sort of getting involved earlier in protests downtown, friends who were, like, thinking about trying to organize some sort of moment of silence for those lost on both sides and just sort of to acknowledge, like, the heaviness of it all without, you know, taking a side or anything like that. But it’s been very, like, numb, if that makes sense. No one’s really doing anything.

Dorothy: Why do you think there hasn’t been a stronger reaction on high school campuses compared to colleges?

Orlena:  You know, it definitely feels like a climate where… anything you say can be used against you or anything you post. There’s a sensitivity about taking a side and insult some part of their identity and, these issues are just so heavily attached to someone’s identity and attached to a lot of emotion. And, yeah you don’t want to hurt, you know, the friendships you have. So I think people tend to avoid talking about it, not that that’s what people should do.

NARR (Dorothy): Orlena tells me about a specific day of remote learning where her government teacher tried to get the class to discuss the conflict and the protests.

Orlena: My government teacher, just said like, does anyone have any questions or does anyone want to talk about what’s going on? And students are scared to engage. I think that’s sort of the world we live in, which maybe is somewhat sad just because I think some of that open dialogue would be helpful

NARR (Dorothy): Orlena told me the issue goes beyond school. The fear has even led her to be more conscious of how she and her classmates discuss the war in public.

Orlena: Even like being on the street. You do feel there’s a little bit of fear in being targeted for what you say. Um, yeah, even I’ve just noticed it. Yeah. Just on the street being aware of, like, not talking so loudly Or, yeah I don’t know…

NARR (Dorothy): And the fear of disciplinary action in school is real. Several students have faced suspensions for engaging in protests and voicing opinions about the conflict. In a recent Congressional hearing, Chancellor David Banks had this to say…

ARCHIVAL TAPE:

[CONGRESSMAN] Is the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” is that antisemitic?

[BANKS] I think most Jewish people experience that as antisemitic and as such, it is not allowed in our schools.

Camara: …we’ve definitely seen a lot of instances in which students write or make statements in support of Palestine. So using words like free Palestine or from the river to the sea, facing suspensions and facing other types of punishment, because they use those terms, not just because they were engaged in protest. so that’s one thing that we find really concerning, just kind of a blanket decision that certain terms are hate speech

NARR (Dorothy): This is Camara Stokes Hudson, the education counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union, aka N-Y-C-L-U or ny-cloo. NYCLU is an organization that works to protect freedom of speech rights statewide. And they have some worries about how some schools are discouraging student speech about the war.

Camara: On top of the suspensions, we’re also seeing a lot of people experiencing harassment and bullying on the basis of their race and religion…

NARR (Dorothy): Camara wants schools to remember that…

Camara: You do not abandon your free speech rights when you enter school. They’re a little bit different. But students still have the right to communicate their views in an appropriate manner inside of their school buildings.

NARR (Dorothy): So what can schools do to regulate student speech?

CAMARA: Schools are allowed to regulate student speech when the speech causes a substantial or material disruption. Schools can restrict types of student speech that are like hate speech and bullying. Instances in which, like you are interrupting the order of the school day…. But things like sharing petitions, having a moment of silence, wearing expressive shirts that kind of share solidarity or kind of have like flags on them or things like that, those are not material and substantial disruptions and students should be able to do those things in school and share those views in school.

NARR (Dorothy): But for many schools, figuring out what separates political expression from hate speech and disruption has proved to be a tricky task.

NARR (Dorothy): Where do you think that we can draw this line on what kind of speech or action is considered disruptive enough to warrant discipline?

Camara: It’s a difficult question to say where that line is, but we certainly do not want to see instances in which people are sharing their political views and are being suppressed for doing so.

NARR (Dorothy): So, what’s the harm if schools are indeed suppressing student speech like Camara claims?

Camara: Schools are supposed to be a place of free expression and free thought. Schools are really one of the first places that students kind of get an opportunity to learn how to discuss their views in a way that is facilitative that is collaborative and thoughtful and like has good results for everyone in the room. And so it’s really, really unfortunate that New York City public schools and that schools across the country have avoided their responsibility to facilitate that space and facilitate those conversations, because those conversations are unlikely to happen outside of school. Information is worse once you get outside of school. People are learning things on the Internet.

NARR (Dorothy):  Camara tells me about a specific Supreme Court case that’s particularly relevant to today’s situation–the Tinker vs. Des Moines case of 1969. It involved two students–John and Mary Beth Tinker–who were the children of two anti-Vietnam War activists.

CAMARA: At the time, one of the ways that people showed protest against the Vietnam War was to wear a black armband and Mary Beth and John Tinker attended school wearing black armbands. And that anti-war sentiment was very, very controversial. And so they were ultimately suspended for wearing the black armbands. They took the case to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court very powerfully says that students don’t abandon their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate and so it’s really, really unfortunate that schools are not being used as a place to have those conversations because they are one of the best places for them.

NARR (Dorothy):  Camara and other folks at NYCLU have been very disapproving of New York high schools’ responses to student protestors. And they took action.

NARR (Dorothy): Last December, NYCLU sent a letter to NYC Schools Chancellor David Banks defending student freedom of speech and criticizing Banks’ response, especially his decision to increase police presence in certain schools. Camara was one of the authors of that letter.

Camara: We decided that it was important for us to kind of put New York City public schools and Chancellor Banks on notice. That one, that we were seeing these issues, if they weren’t seeing them themselves, but also that they have an obligation to protect students rights in this moment, and that it is unfortunate and concerning to us that it seems like that hasn’t been happening.

NARR (Dorothy):  So, how does NYCLU think schools SHOULD go about handling this sensitive topic?

CAMARA: The city and especially the Banks administration needs to make sure that principals and district superintendents are applying suspension laws and the chancellor’s regulations correctly, that students due process rights and First Amendment rights are not being validated. We also feel like New York City public schools needs to exercise restraint in this moment. In terms of suspending students, it is very easy to just kick a kid out of school.One of the implications of doing that is you’ve removed them from the one of the only spaces where you could have a generative, facilitative conversation about this issue...

NARR (Dorothy): It’s especially important for schools to facilitate dialogue on tough topics. Because, Historically, students have been catalysts of social change.

Camara: You can go as far back as the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement. They are some of the most likely to put themselves on the line. I was a student protester. I was a part of organizing walkouts in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. So students across time have been kind of essential drivers of social change.

NARR (Dorothy): And that’s something Orlena–the student we spoke to at the beginning–has recently learned. Witnessing the student protests upclose,

Orlena said she’s inspired to be more involved in activism when she goes to college.

Orlena:  I definitely have come out with a desire to do something…colleges are really a space for you to learn what you care about and learn what your values are. And I think that student activism and, you know, peaceful demonstration is definitely a way to do that and express, you know, what you’re passionate about and find community for sure.

NARR (Dorothy):What students urgently need are conversations—not silence.

HOST (Jose): That was Dorothy Ha reporting for P.S. Weekly.

Edsurge Podcast Ad:

What does the future of learning look like? All the big changes going on in tech and society these days, raise tough and fascinating questions in education.

We dig into those questions every week on the EdSurge Podcast. I’m Jeff Young, an editor and reporter at EdSurge and host of the show. Big themes we’re covering these days include AI’s impact on teaching, what to do about all of those smartphones in classrooms, and how a growing skepticism of college is changing what young people do after high school. You can find the EdSurge Podcast wherever you listen. I hope you’ll check it out.

HOST (Jose): I actually have Dorothy in the studio with me today, to talk more about student rights.

SEG B: Jose/Dorothy Conversation

Jose: Hey Dorothy. How’s it going?

Dorothy: Going great. How are you, Jose?

Jose: I’m good. Excited to talk about this. Dorothy, with all the reporting you’ve done on this topic. What’s been your personal connection to it? Has it been addressed in your school?

Dorothy: Yeah, it has been addressed in my school, and particularly it’s been addressed within my school newspaper. So my school’s newspaper is called The Spectator, and I think it’s been really good at publishing opinion pieces and news coverage on all sides of the war. And I remember a few months back, actually there was one article in particular that kind of blew up.

Jose: Tell me more.

Dorothy: So it was an anonymous published article. The author was expressing pro-Hamas sentiments. And there were also a couple of pieces of misinformation in the article. And so the article ended up getting a lot of backlash, not just from the student body, but also from readers outside of my school. It ended up getting picked up by the New York Post. And the New York Post kind of published a counter article in response to the anonymous article published by The Spectator and the New York Post basically denounced the article and also denounced the legitimacy of my school’s newspaper and in the comments section of the New York Post article, I remember seeing some really hateful and extremist comments. I remember there is this one comment that went along the lines of if these students are going to be publishing these things, they should all get deported to the Gaza Strip.

Jose: Wow. That is insane. So how did your school paper respond to the New York Post?

Dorothy: They actually released an official statement to the New York Post article not too long after it was published. The spectator said, “We maintain that our decision to publish the article was a protection of free speech and falls in line with the spectator’s goal as a journalistic enterprise to transmit the opinions of Stuyvesant students and allow for a respectful discussion of these ideas.” And they also went on later in the article to acknowledge that there was factual inaccuracy present in the article. But I think the reason why they were defending it was because it’s part of a larger set of principles of honoring the freedom of speech that students have a right to.

Jose: Yeah, And I think it really is also bad when students are not educated about or are not even informed about the current events that are taking place in society, which students are hearing of in other places like social media, etc..

Dorothy: Mm hmm. That’s interesting. And I definitely agree with you. I think students definitely need a space to freely discuss current events and to learn from each other. So in schools, these spaces really need to be had because without them, malice and hatred is going to spread. And I think that’s the opposite of what we need right now.

Jose: Yeah, I totally agree.

Dorothy: The ultimate takeaway is that schools need to strike a balance in order to protect their students’ physical and mental safety as well as their voices. But overall, I think no matter what the worst thing is to ignore it.

Jose: Thank you so much for your time, Dorothy.

Dorothy: Thank you, Jose.

CONCLUSION:

HOST (Jose): Well that’s it for our show today.

HOST (Jose): Don’t forget to go to chalkbeat.org/newsletters (or click the link in our show notes) to sign up for the Chalkbeat New York morning newsletter. It’s THE best way to stay informed on local schools coverage Monday through Friday. And drop us a review! or shoot an email to PSWeekly@chalkbeat.org. Tell us what you learned today or what you’re still wondering. We just might read your comment on a future episode.

And PS… we’re back next week with our LAST episode of the school year… about the importance of swimming pools and how Alicia Keys helped save a school arts program. You won’t want to miss it!  —.

Next episode preview: This is a moment where families, students and taxpayers can all make our voices heard and say like, the arts in our public schools are important and that’s where we want our money being spent.

HOST (Jose): Until then… *Class dismissed*!

CREDITS:

HOST: PS Weekly is a collaboration between The Bell and Chalkbeat, made possible by generous support from The Pinkerton Foundation, The Summerfield Foundation, FJC, and Hindenburg Systems.

This episode was hosted by me, Jose Santana.

Producers for this episode were: Dorothy Ha AND Bernie Carmona with reporting help from Chalkbeat reporters Alex Zimmerman, Mike Elsen-Rooney, AND Julian Shen-berro.

Our executive producer for the show is: JoAnn DeLuna.

Executive editors are:  Amy Zimmer AND Taylor McGraw.

Additional production and reporting support was provided by: Sabrina DuQuesnay, Mira Gordon, and our friends at Chalkbeat.

Special thanks to our interns Miriam Galicia,  AND Makenna Turner.

And also thanks to our amazing team of volunteer mentors.

Music from Blue Dot Sessions.

And the jingle you heard at the beginning of this episode was created by the one and only: Erica Huang.

Thanks for tuning in! See you in the next episode!

The Latest

There are 47 people running in Chicago’s school board elections on Nov. 5. Here’s an updating list.

Known as “NYC Solves,” the new initiative will see 93 middle schools across eight school districts, as well as 420 high schools, using Illustrative Math this fall.

District leaders will spend more than a quarter of a million dollars to rehire a Memphis-based marketing firm tasked with recruiting up to 311 students.

“The courts have spoken. My members have spoken,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. Left unsaid is how else unions might find $600 million in annual cost savings.

New York City’s Education Department will establish a new division to support students with disabilities and children learning English as a second language, Mayor Eric Adams announced on Monday.

Philadelphia needs to hire more than 450 teachers, especially in special education