Student Voice, a cornerstone of “modern” education, is actually over a hundred years old. Dr. Dennis Harper describes Student Voice as “…giving students the ability to influence learning to include policies, programs, contexts and principles”. Student Voice can take many different forms in education. It can be as simple and “grass roots” as peer teaching or as formal and bureaucratic as giving students seats on school boards.

Whatever form it takes, the underlying principle behind student voice is that the ideas, opinions and views of students are important and valued. Students are not subordinates, they are valued partners who deserve to be heard. However, that this isn’t always true. There’s growing evidence that many schools really aren’t that thrilled with some students expressing their “voice”.

There are various examples of US schools restricting students’ free speech. One of the best happened in 2013 when Pat Brown, a senior at Cicero-North Syracuse High School and member of the student council  began tweeting about the failed school budget. School officials weren’t impressed and in response suspended Brown for three days.

Fortunately for Brown, and other US students, their right to freely express themselves is protected by law. In a 1965 ruling, The Supreme Court found that administrators “…have to prove student conduct “would materially and substantially interfere” with regular school operations…” in order to limit their right to free speech. Unfortunately, there’s no such standard in Ontario.

In January of 2014 The Peel District School Board suspended “several” students who tweeted their displeasure that the school board didn’t declare schools closed due to snow. And in November of 2012 the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board suspended nine students for tweets that were “injurious to moral code” of the school.” In both cases students sent their tweets outside of school time and off school property.

Recently, Mitchel Bonaccorso was suspended for ten days by Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board because they found his YouTube videos “injurious to the moral tone of the school.” Bonaccorso is an excellent student in grade 12 and has been accepted into two universities next year. He’s now worried that the suspension will affect his grades, and his future. Like the two Peel suspensions, Bonaccorso didn’t make any of these videos at school or during school time.

In all of these situations the content of the expression, the tweets and the videos, is either questionable, offensive or just weird. The school boards all defended their actions by explaining that it’s the offensive nature of the content that is at issue, not the right to speak. But isn’t that the point of free speech? As Oscar Wilde said “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”

And should we be surprised that students sometimes express themselves inappropriately? Anyone who’s spent any time with adolescents (or WAS an adolescent) would know that. Increasingly, it seems, schools “talk the talk” of Student Voice, but only if students are saying the things schools like to hear, in the ways schools like to hear them.

Schools who encourage and support Student Voice must be prepared to take the bad with the good. It’s unfair to encourage students to express themselves, tell them their voice is valued and important, and then punish them when they do. Real Student Voice is about respecting students’ right to say what they think, feel and believe in the way that they want. Until we can do that, we’re just pretending.