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Student Speech

The First Amendment protects the rights of students to "speak", which may include the right to do or say something in a school setting -- such as protest against actions that violate legally-protected rights -- but may also include symbolic speech actions such as the wearing of armbands or graphic tees. Here we look at some of free speech lawsuits involving public schools as well as literary works placed on the infamous Banned Book List. This section provides helpful information and resources on free speech basics for students, as well as free speech lawsuits involving public schools. Click on the links below to learn more.

Free Speech Lawsuits Involving Public Schools

The first court case establishing that students have some First Amendment rights and protections was 1943's West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. West Virginia had passed a law requiring all students to salute the flag and recite the pledge of allegiance. Several students and parents who were Jehovah's Witnesses complained that their religion prevented vows of allegiance. The Supreme Court sided with the students and struck down the law as infringing upon their First Amendment rights.

It wasn't until 1969 that the next important free speech lawsuit involving students made it to the Supreme Court. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District centered on a group of students who wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. School administrators passed a rule banning black armbands and suspended any student caught wearing one. Suspended students sued the school district. The Court's decision ruled that students have First Amendment protections, but created an important caveat that schools could limit free speech to prevent the disruption of order in the classroom.

Subsequent cases found that a school speech full of obscenities fell into the "substantial disorder" exception, schools could censor a school paper article discussing student pregnancies and naming pregnant students, and limiting speech where school sponsored activities are at issue. Follow the links below for more information on these and other student free speech lawsuits.

School Dress Codes

Clothing is an important mode of expression and there has been significant debate about whether dress code policies impermissibly limit students' right to free expression. Tinker and similar lawsuits have established that schools may limit self expression if there is a legitimate concern that such expression will be disruptive to the learning environment or violate the rights of others. Dress codes have been successfully implemented to ban:

  • gang related clothing
  • revealing clothing, including baggy pants or short skirts
  • clothing bearing lewd, obscene, or otherwise offensive imagery

However, schools cannot prevent students from expressing their religious beliefs. Bans on religious head scarves, cross necklaces, rosaries, and traditional dress at graduation have all been struck down as improperly preventing student expression of religious beliefs.

Schools do retain the right to create rules that provide an effective education for their students. Schools can develop and enforce a dress code; provided they can show that their dress code furthers this goal and prevents violent or abusive behavior.

Learn About Student Speech