Can Public Schools Limit the First Amendment Rights 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,

    Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.
The First Amendment and Public Schools.


One thought on “Can Public Schools Limit the First Amendment Rights of Their Students?”

  1. I believe the first amendment should apply to students at school for a couple of reasons. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and because public schools are public institutions, they are included under the first amendment. Moreover, according to the Supreme Court in Keyishian v. Board of Education, 1967: “The classroom is peculiarly the “marketplace of ideas.” The Nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers “truth out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection” In order for kids to be educated and be able to make informed decisions as voters and citizens, they must first have the exposure to various beliefs and the opportunity to express their own beliefs. What better place for these actions to take place than at a place whose sole purpose is to educate? Additionally, in 1965, several students wore black armbands to their local public school in protest of the Vietnam War. The kids were told to remove the armband and when they did not, they were suspended. The resulting case: Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, resulted in this ruling by the Supreme Court: “students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” There are obviously opposing views on children expressing their beliefs at school, but I believe, along with the Supreme court that ruled in both the Keyishian v. Board of Education case and the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case, that public schools are a place for children to learn and grow by expressing themselves within the rights provided by the first amendment.


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