The First Amendment of the United States Constitution addresses one of the most fundamental rights of all: The right to express our thoughts freely. However, the explicit intent of our Founding Fathers to permit free speech has not always been the legal norm inside of classrooms and on college campuses.
Over the past 80 years, four cases have helped the United States judicial system define the free speech rights of American students.
West Virginia State Board v. Barnette marked the first time in American history that the United States Supreme Court ruled students possess the First Amendment right of free speech. During World War II, the State of West Virginia passed a law that required all public school students to salute the American flag and recite the pledge of allegiance daily. Numerous parents and students balked at following the West Virginia legal edict, especially members of Jehovah’s Witnesses who proclaimed that their religious beliefs prevented them from adhering to the law. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parents and students, which set the tone for future court cases involving student free speech issues.
Twenty-six years after the Supreme Court issued the historic ruling in West Virginia State Board v. Barnette, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District addressed a free speech issue that pertained to the Vietnam War. A group of students donned black arm bands in protest of the American government’s military involvement in Vietnam. Administration officials of the Des Moines Independent Community School District passed a regulation that banned the black arm bands, with a clause included that suspended students for failing to abide by the regulation.
After the school district enforced the regulation by suspending more than a dozen students, parents of the students sued the school board and eventually, the case made its way to the United States Supreme Court. The Court verified that students enjoy First Amendment protections, but the nine judges added that schools can limit free speech to maintain order in the classroom. The ambiguous language of the ruling prompted several more landmark student free speech cases.
Student Matthew Fraser delivered a speech in front of a school assembly riddled with profanity and sexual innuendos. After the Bethel School District suspended Fraser for his antics, Fraser’s parents, along with several other parents, filed a lawsuit against the school district that alleged the violation of Fraser’s First Amendment rights. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that Fraser has violated the “substantial disorder” section of the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District ruling. Writing the legal opinion for the Supreme Court’s majority judges, Chief Justice, Warren Berger, emphasized schools are charged with the legal responsibility to “instill students with habits and manners of civility as values. The undoubted freedom to advocate unpopular and controversial views in schools and classrooms must be balanced against the society’s countervailing interest in teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior.”
After the Bethel School District Ruling, the United States Supreme Court made multiple rulings that placed limits on student free speech. The Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier case comes to mind. Since the Hazelwood ruling, lower courts have determined in other cases that school districts enjoy the “broad legal discretion to control student free speech.” Subsequent court cases have eroded student free speech rights protected under the First Amendment.
Students and parents that believe a school district has violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment should contact a licensed California attorney who specializes in education law.