Free Speech in School

Can Students Use Symbolic Speech to Protest in School?

Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969

Background:  Students chose to wear black arm bands to school as a form of protest to the Vietnam War.  The three were suspended until they agreed to comply with a school policy that banned the wearing of armbands in school.   

Ruling:  The court ruled in favor of the student, Tinker 7-2. 

Precedent:  School officials may censor student speech only if it “materially and substantially interfere[s] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.”

Can School Boards Remove Books from School Libraries?

Island Trees School District v. Pico, 1982

Background: The Island Trees School District Board in New York ordered that certain books they described as “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy,” be removed from the district’s middle and high school libraries.  Some of these eleven books were “Go Ask Alice” by Anonymous, “Black Boy” by Richard Wright and “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut.   Steven Pico along with four other teens challenged the school board in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Ruling:  The Court ruled in favor of Pico, agreeing that their First Amendment rights were violated, and limiting the ability of school boards to remove library books in a 5-4 decision.

Precedent:  Schools may not remove books from libraries simply because they have an aversion to the ideas they express.

Are Sexual Innuendos in School Protected Speech?

Bethel School District vs. Fraser, 1986

Background: Matthew Fraser, a student from Pierce County, Washington, was disciplined by his school’s administration for giving a speech to nominate a fellow student for student government that contained many sexual double entendres, but not obscenity.  Fraser was suspended for two days and banned from speaking at his graduation. Fraser sued the district for violating his free speech rights.

Ruling:  Though the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Fraser, the Supreme Court reversed this decision with a 7-2 ruling in favor of the Bethel School District.

Precedent: Bethel v. Fraser determined that it is legal for schools to censor obscene, lewd, vulgar and plainly offensive speech. 

Can the Principal Censor a School Newspaper?

Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier, 1988

Background:  Robert Reynolds, the principal of Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis County, Missouri, removed two articles from the school-sponsored newspaper, the Spectrum, prior to publication.  The stories in question were about divorce and teen pregnancy.

Ruling:  The court ruled in favor of the Hazelwood school district 5-3.  Justice Kennedy did not participate in this case.

Precedent:  Newspapers that are financially supported by the public school, and therefore not established as open forums of student expression, are subject to a lower level of protection by the First Amendment, under which school officials can censor material.  However, they may not do so based solely on personal opinion; they must have reasonable concerns that the content interferes with the school’s educational mission. 

What Would Happen if a Student Unfurled a Banner that Read “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” at a School-Supervised Event?

Morse vs. Frederick, 2007

Background: While the 2002 Olympic Torch Relay was passing in front of his school, student Joseph Frederick and some friends displayed a banner that read “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS,” in plain view of other students.  Principal Deborah Morse confiscated the banner and suspended the students, who later sued, claiming their free speech rights had been violated. 

Ruling:  The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Principal Morse 5-3.  Justice Breyer concurred in part and dissented in part.

Precedent:  School Officials may censor speech, even in an off-campus, school-supervised situation, in order to protect other students from speech that is “reasonably regarded as promoting illegal drug use.”

 -compiled by Hannah Stokes ’11

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