Freedom of speech, according to the first amendment, guarantees everyone the right to speak their mind–almost. There are several restrictions to free speech, such as threatening to kill the president or obscenity that apply to all citizens, including students. In recent years, there has been debate over additional restrictions being applied to students’ rights to free speech. What restrictions, if any, can be applied to students’ right to free speech in schools?
In the case of Morse v. Frederick, a student held up a sign that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” during a parade, and the sign was confiscated by the principal. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that free speech “as it relates to politics or beliefs” should be allowed, but any speech “regarding illegal activity or that could lead to the danger of students” should be monitored and controlled. Schools are ultimately responsible for student safety. It gave discretion to teachers and administrators to determine whether certain speech is dangerous to students or suggests illegal activity.
Another restriction surfaced in the case of Tinker vs. Des Moines in 1969, where several students planned to wear black armbands in silent protest of the Vietnam War. These students were later suspended for wearing the armbands, but later sued the school district for violating their freedom of speech. The Supreme Court argued that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression” when entering school. In a 7-2 vote, the court voted that students could NOT prohibit free speech on the suspicion alone that it might disrupt learning.
In 2006, a student in California wore a shirt that read “Homosexuality is shameful” and “Be ashamed, our school embraced what God has condemned” on his school’s LGBTQ day of silence. The school barred him from wearing this shirt due to “concern about the protection of students in a minority group” that have been previously subjected to harassment. This has been an extremely controversial case with very good arguments on both sides. Was the school in the right for protecting their LGBTQ students from potential harassment, one of the leading causes of depression or self-harm? Was the student’s freedom of speech diminished because he held a controversial opinion? There is no clear answer for some of these controversies.
As future voters and involved citizens, we have to be careful about placing restrictions on their right to free speech. The ultimate purpose of schools is to educate children, so it makes sense that any speech distracting from the learning process can be prohibited. Similarly, schools are responsible for the safety of their students and teachers so speech that could elicit danger should also be controlled. It is important, however, to discriminate between protecting the students and the learning environment and disagreeing with a student’s opinion. If there is a genuine concern for the safety of students and staff or a disruption to the learning process, student speech can be prohibited.
“Student’s Speech: Speech, Walkouts, and Other Protests.” ACLU, http://www.aclu.org/issues/free-speech/student-speech-and-privacy/students-rights-speech-walkouts-and-other-protests. Accessed 20 Feb. 2019.
Trotter, Andrew. “U.S. Court Backs School’s Decision to Bar Student’s Anti-Gay T-Shirt.” Education Week, 2019 Editorial Projects in Education, 28 Apr. 2006, http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2006/05/03/34t-shirts.h25.html. Accessed 25 Feb. 2019.
United States, Supreme Court. Morse v. Frederick. United States Reports, vol. 551, 25 June 2007. United States Courts, http://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/facts-and-case-summary-morse-v-frederick. Accessed 25 Feb. 2019. Unpublished opinion.
United States, Supreme Court. Tinker v. Des Moines. United States Reports, vol. 563, 28 Feb. 1969. United States Courts, http://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/facts-and-case-summary-tinker-v-des-moines. Accessed 26 Feb. 2019. Unpublished opinion.