Can Public Schools Limit the First Amendment Rights of Speech of Their Students?

Morse v. Frederick – First Amendment

Essential Question: When can a public school limit a student’s first amendment rights on school property?

High school is a time of change and prosperity within finding one’s self. Gaining freedom is something that all high schoolers experience in the four years of high school. When the majority of students think of freedom as a high schooler, they think of getting their driver’s license or going to a party; however, they minimally think about their freedom of speech. Free speech of students within public schools has been a controversial issue since approximately the 1960’s and it has not settled much since that time. The big question is: should schools be allowed to limit the freedom of speech a student has? Many people actually believe that schools should have the power to limit students freedom of speech. There are a few specific cases where free speech was tested, and some cases had an outcome of schools having power over speech, some did not. In 2002, a high school student from Alaska, Joseph Frederick, held up a sign reading “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” at a school-supervised event. The principal, Deborah Morse, interpreted the sign as advocating for illegal drug use and Frederick was suspended for 10 days. This was taken to court and the U.S. District Court for District of Alaska ruled in favor of Morse since “Frederick’s action was not protected by the first amendment (ruled it was not political)”. However, many officials were proud to stand out and state their opposing opinion to that ruling. Justice John Paul Stevens stated, “a school’s interest in protecting students from speech that can be reasonably regarded as promoting drug use does not justify Frederick’s punishment for his attempt to make an ambiguous statement simply because it refers to drugs” and to back this up, The Supreme Court ruled that “justification must be more than a mere desire to avoid discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.” Therefore, justification of a supposed punishment must have sufficient evidence that the problem caused more than just discomfort. To parallel with Morse v. Frederick, Tinker v. Des Moines was a situation where two students wore back armbands to protest the Vietnam War. In this case, court claimed “the First Amendment applies to students on school property unless officials can demonstrate a reason to restrict it”. This was an expression of a political view, and therefore, the school could not follow through with punishing the students. Morse v. Frederick, nonetheless, can be contradicted to another big case within this subject: Bethel v. Fraser. This case was a battle between a student and his school district for using sexual innuendos, not obscenity, in a speech for a classmate that was running for vice president. The court in this situation claimed, “the constitutional rights of students at public schools are not automatically coextensive with rights of adults”. With this, the student was using vulgar language that was interpreted as so and got punished for that behavior. There are strong cases both ways when it comes to freedom of speech among high school students, but the line between what is free speech and what is not is a very thin, seemingly invisible line. It is important for high school students to know their rights, and even more when they venture into the real world. The First Amendment tends to be very controversial and will not stop being that way, since many opinions can be twisted and turned any and every which way.

Tags – The Supreme Court,   Tinker v. Des Moines,   Bethel v. Fraser

Works Cited

Wikipedia. Aug. 2016, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_speech_(First_Amendment).

    Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.
The First Amendment and Public Schools. media.okstate.edu/faculty/jsenat/jb3163/studentpress.html.

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2 thoughts on “Can Public Schools Limit the First Amendment Rights of Speech of Their Students?”

  1. I agree with your statements how high school is a time for change and finding one’s self and how it is important for high schoolers to know your rights because there is a lot of controversy over the first amendment. I also researched the topic of what is limited at a public school, and found it very interesting because as I high school student I did not know all of the limits of the First Amendment. One article that I found to be interesting was the case of Castorina es rel. Rewt v. Madison County School Board. Two teenagers were suspended from school for wearing a shirt with a confederate flag on them. The case went on to the federal court and then to the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals. This particular case was compared to the Tinker V Des Moines, which is one of the most influential cases when it comes to limits on the First Amendment. Overall, I thought this topic was intriguing and taught me about different cases that I had never heard about.

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  2. I agree that the First Amendment is very controversial when it comes to students. As you stated, it is has many technicalities to it and can be flip-flopped many ways under different circumstances. In the first case you explained with Joseph Fredrick and his “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” sign was not protected because it wasn’t political. I’m honestly surprised this case was even a case. In my opinion, the court had every right to deny it was a violation of the First Amendment. It’s one thing to have a sign like that out in public, such as downtown, but in school I think most adults would see it as an obscenity. That just begins to cross another line regarding the First Amendment—knowing it when you see it; an obscenity to one person may not be an obscenity to others. However, in this case, I believe most would see it as an obscenity. To cut to the point, I think there should be limits on student’s speech in school. The school is in charge of ensuring parent’s kids are in a safe, supportive environment, and while the First Amendment may protect a citizen’s rights, it does differ when it comes to a student in a high school environment.

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