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What is freedom of expression?
 
What rights to freedom of expression do students have?
 
What has the Supreme Court said about free expression?
 
 

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided several cases involving the First Amendment rights of public school students, but the most often cited are Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986) and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988).

In Tinker, the Supreme Court said that students "do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." The court ruled that Iowa public school officials violated the First Amendment rights of several students by suspending them for wearing black armbands to school.

The court noted that the students’ wearing of armbands to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a form of symbolic speech "akin to pure speech." The school officials tried to justify their actions, saying that the armbands would disrupt the school environment.

But, the Supreme Court said that "in our system, undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression." School officials cannot silence student speech simply because they dislike it or it is controversial or unpopular. Rather, according to the court, school officials must reasonably forecast that student speech will cause a "substantial disruption" or "material interference" with school activities or "invade the rights of others" before they can censor student expression. The Tinker case is considered the high-water mark for student First Amendment rights.

In the 1980s, a more conservative Supreme Court cut back on students' free-expression rights in Fraser and Hazelwood. In Fraser, school officials suspended a high school student for giving a lewd speech before the student assembly. Even though Matthew Fraser's speech was part of a student-government campaign, the high court distinguished the sexual nature of the address from the political speech in Tinker.

"Surely, it is a highly appropriate function of public school education to prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse," the court wrote in its 1986 decision. "The undoubted freedom to advocate unpopular and controversial views in schools and classrooms must be balanced against the society’s countervailing interest in teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior."

Two years later the Supreme Court further restricted student free-expression rights in Hazelwood. In that 1988 decision, several students sued after a Missouri high school principal censored two articles in the school newspaper. The articles, written by students dealt with divorce and teen pregnancy. The principal said he thought the subject matter was inappropriate for some of the younger students.

The students argued that the principal violated their First Amendment rights because he did not meet the Tinker standard -- he did not show the articles would lead to a substantial disruption. Instead of examining the case under Tinker, however, the Supreme Court developed a new standard for what it termed school-sponsored speech.

Under this standard, school officials can regulate school-sponsored student expression as long as the officials' actions "are reasonably related to a legitimate pedagogical interest." In plain English, this means school officials must show that they have a reasonable educational reason for their actions. The court broadly defined the school’s authority to regulate school-sponsored expression, writing that school officials could censor material which would "associate the school with anything other than neutrality on matters of political controversy."

 
 
May public schools impose dress codes and uniforms?
 
May a school punish a student for wearing Confederate flag attire?
 
Are political messages on students’ clothing protected?
 
Can students wear clothing with profanity?
 
May a public school official legally censor a school-sponsored publication, like a newspaper or yearbook?
 
May a public school legally censor an off-campus, 'underground' student publication?
 
May administrators remove controversial books from school library shelves?
 
What types of books are most subject to censorship?
 
Is speech on the Internet entitled to as much protection as speech in more traditional media?
 
Does it matter whether a student creates his cyberspeech at school?
 
May schools enforce speech codes on school grounds?
 
May a public school exclude certain student clubs or groups?
 
If a student creates his material at home, how can school officials possibly regulate it?
 
Can school officials restrict online expression because it contains offensive language?
 
Are public school students required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance?
 
May students pray or discuss religion in public schools?
 
May a student lead a prayer at graduation exercises?
 
Does it violate my First Amendment rights if a school official reads over my graduation speech before I give it?
 
Do students have to stand and remove their hats during the Pledge?
 
If I wear my hair long or dye it an unusual color, can I get in trouble at school?
 
Can public schools use Internet filters to block students' access to specific Web sites?
 
Can students be forced to stand while other students recite the Pledge?
 
Can different rules about hair length apply in extracurricular activities and the regular school day?
 
Does a public school have the right to prohibit students from wearing hats in school?
 
What about the power of schools to control speech in the classroom?
 
How do schools resolve the tension between freedom of speech and the need for discipline and control?
 
Can a principal forbid a teacher from reading certain curriculum-related texts in class?
 
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Last system update: Tuesday, February 9, 2010 | 17:53:32
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