When the U. S. Supreme Court decided its first free speech case involving students and the public schools, the idea that students had any right to free speech would have been considered laughable at best, dangerous at worst. At that time, school was considered a privilege to attend, and rules or regulations the school sought to enforce were untouchable. This generalization was collectively true at the elementary, secondary and college levels of education.
But today, particularly in an era of compulsory education laws and the proliferation of digital media, school speech is a major issue in schools. This article focuses on free speech in schools with respect to students. See FindLaw's Student Speech section for additional information.
Student rights to free speech did not really become an issue until the Vietnam War, when more and more students found themselves at opposite ends of the political spectrum from their teachers and school administrators. The Supreme Court's 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District opened the floodgates to school free speech litigation.
Tinker held that free expression of ideas in the school is protected by both the First and 14th Amendments, unless school administrators can prove that a given act of expression causes "substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others."
While court decisions have certainly gone back and forth between the right to free speech and the need to impose discipline and respect the feelings of all students, there has never been any attempt to go back to the strict free speech restrictions of the pre-Vietnam War era.
In 1988, the Supreme Court issued an opinion (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier) that would further define the extent of the First Amendment rights of public school students. While the Court acknowledged the free speech rights of students, it also held that these rights are not as extensive as the First Amendment rights of adults.
Students who worked for the school newspaper sued the school district for removing articles that dealt with controversial topics (such as teen pregnancy and the impact of divorce on families). The Court decided that the students' First Amendment rights were not violated because the school exercised appropriate editorial control over "school-sponsored expressive activities" in order to limit speech that was "inconsistent" with its basic educational mission. In other words, free speech in school publications is limited by the overall interests of the school.
Public school free speech rights for students can be divided into those applying to elementary and secondary students and those dealing with college issues. Since college students are adults, the First Amendment situations dealt with are substantially different. Analyzing student free speech rights in this way can give a cohesive picture of those rights for students today.
Contact a qualified education attorney to help you navigate education rights and laws.