Can Schools Actually Forbid Talking About Suicide?

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Warning: Mild spoilers ahead for 13 Reasons Why season 2.
In the first episode of 13 Reasons Why season 2, we hear via Zach that Liberty High School has forbidden students from talking about suicide, following Hannah's suicide and Alex's attempted suicide. Zach nervously looks around as Alex pulls out the note he left when he shot himself and tells Alex, "We're not allowed to talk about suicide, or you, or Hannah." Turns out, the school administration made a rule that if any student talked about suicide on campus, they could get suspended. It's a rule that Alex immediately breaks, because he wants to know what happened to him (he forgot the events of Season 1 due to his traumatic head injury) and he doesn't care if talking about it pisses off school officials. "They can't suspend me for talking about me," he says.
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But can a school legally suspend anyone for talking about suicide? The short answer is no, as long as you attend a public school, says Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) Speech, Privacy, and Technology project. "A public school can't just say to students, 'you can't talk about this issue,'" he says. Public school students were awarded the right to free speech in schools in 1969, after a 13-year-old girl was suspended for wearing an arm band in protest of the Vietnam War. Her case went to the United States Supreme Court which decided that public school students "don't shed their constitutional rights at the school house gates."
So, no, schools can’t prohibit speech on controversial issues like suicide, Wizner says. But, schools can punish students for speech that they can prove is disruptive to learning. For example, many schools get away with banning T-shirts emblazoned with swear words because they can argue that profanity is disruptive. But, a public school wouldn't be able to ban a student from wearing a Make America Great Again shirt, even in a school where many students would take offence to it. "You’re allowed to wear a political message, even if it’s controversial," Wizner says.
So while some might consider suicide a "disruptive" topic, Liberty High School would have to justify banning any and all conversations about Hannah, Alex, and suicide in general, Wizner says. In certain cases, the school could say talking about suicide is disruptive, like if students were literally interrupting class to talk about it. But Wizner doesn't see any plausible argument for banning talk about suicide as a whole at a public school. "In order to be able to have a policy that forbids talking about something, the school would have the make the argument to a court that the subject matter itself is so fraught that any conversation about it is disruptive to a learning environment," he says. "But that's just patently false."
Besides being illegal, Wizner feels that forbidding students to talk about controversial topics like suicide would be unwise. "What schools should be doing is creating an environment where the issue of suicide can be discussed in an open way," he says. And while students like Alex might not care about risking suspension by talking about suicide on school grounds, having a policy like this could be damaging, Wizner says. Alex didn't get in trouble for talking about his suicide note, and we never see the school actually enforce the rule, but even announcing a no-suicide-talk policy could scare some students away from talking about something that they might need to discuss in order to heal. "A policy like this isn't only problematic when someone is punished," he says. "It’s problematic when it’s announced."
If you are thinking about suicide, please contact Samaritans on 116 123. All calls are free and will be answered in confidence.
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