Free Expression Rights of Students By David L. Hudson Jr. Student free-speech examples Can a student wear a t-shirt with a religious, anti-gay message? Can a student criticize his teacher and principal online on his own computer without repercussions? Can a student write a news editorial in a school-sponsored student newspaper about underage drinking and drug use? Text of First Amendment “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech …” But, “no law” really doesn’t mean no law. Unprotected categories (obscenity, fighting words, etc.) Clear and present danger to incitement Particular places (military, public employment and schools) West Virginia v. Barnette (1943) “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.” Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Comm. Sch. Dist. (1969) Several students wear black armbands to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam War. School officials learn of impending protest and pass no-armband rule. Students still wear armbands to school and are suspended. The Tinker standard School officials can censor student expression only if it “materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others.” What is a “substantial disruption?” Must be a “reasonable forecast” of disruption “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.” Tinker standard Can school officials reasonably forecast that student expression will create a substantial disruption or material interference with school activities or invade the rights of others? Has student expression (i.e. – T-shirt) led to fights at school? Has the student expression led to the shutting down of the school computer lab or the cancelling of classes? What about language in Tinker of “Invades the Rights of Others” Never really explained by the court. The 9th Circuit ruled that school officials could prohibit a student from wearing t-shirts with religious-based, anti-gay messages because it would invade the rights of gay and lesbian students. The U.S. Supreme Court has never told us when student speech invades the rights of others --- not a clear standard. Terrorist T-shirt NRA Gun Shirt Bethel School District v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986) "I know a man who is firm -- he's firm in his pants, he's firm in his shirt, his character is firm -- but most . . . of all, his belief in you, the students of Bethel, is firm. Jeff Kuhlman is a man who takes his point and pounds it in. If necessary, he'll take an issue and nail it to the wall. He doesn't attack things in spurts -- he drives hard, pushing and pushing until finally -- he succeeds. Jeff is a man who will go to the very end -- even the climax, for each and every one of you. So vote for Jeff for A. S. B. vice-president -- he'll never come between you and the best our high school can be." Bethel School Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser (1986) “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.” Fraser: Offensive Speech Silenced The Fraser standard: school officials can regulate student speech is vulgar, lewd or plainly offensive. Fraser: “The undoubted freedom to advocate unpopular and controversial views in schools and classrooms must be balanced against society’s countervailing interest in teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior.” Drugs Suck T-shirt Marilyn Manson t-shirt case Student wears a Marilyn Manson t-shirt to school. The front of the shirt depicts a three-faced Jesus. The back of the shirt depicts the word “BELIEVE” with the letters “LIE” highlighted. Student is punished. Boroff v. Van Wert City Board of Education, 220 F.3d 465 (6th Cir. 2000). Majority in Boroff “the record demonstrates that the School prohibited Boroff’s Marilyn Manson t-shirts generally because this particular rock group promotes disruptive and demoralizing values which are inconsistent with and counter-productive to education.” Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988) School principal censors two stories in school newspaper (produced as part of journalism class). One deals with teen pregancy; another deals with impact of divorce upon teens. Students sue, relying on Tinker “substantial disruption” standard. Hazelwood standard “Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” Anti-Hazelwood Laws (state) Arkansas (1995) California (pre-Hazelwood) Colorado (1990) Iowa (1989) Kansas (1992) Massachusetts (1988) Oregon (2007) Trilogy for Nearly 20 Years Hazelwood standard – applies to schoolsponsored speech Fraser – applies to student speech that is vulgar and lewd. Tinker – applies to most other student speech. Bong Hits 4 Jesus Case Morse v. Frederick (06-278) High school student in Alaska skips school and attends Olympic torch relay that runs on public street near school. He displays banner that reads “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” School principal tears down banner and suspends student for 10 days (allegedly doubling suspension after he mentioned the First Amendment and Thomas Jefferson). Bong Hits (cont.) The Court creates a “promoting drug speech exception” to the trilogy, writing that schools can “restrict student expression that they reasonably regard as promoting illegal drug use.” Bong Hits (cont.) The Court did rule that Fraser “should not be read to encompass any speech that could fit under some definition of ‘offensive.’ After all, much political and religious speech might be perceived as offensive to some.” Thus, -- some offensive speech (of non-sexual nature still protected!) Violent Student Expression/True Threats Is the Expression a True Threat? If a true threat, it is unprotected speech. True threats are not protected by the First Amendment. Even if the expression is not a true threat, can it be prohibited under the Tinker standard? Definitions of True Threats Would a reasonable person believe that an objective, reasonable recipient of the statement would interpret the language to constitute a threat? Would a reasonable recipient interpret the material as a serious threat of harm? Factors in Determining Whether Expression is a True Threat The reaction of the recipient and other listeners; Whether the threat was conditional; Whether the threat was communicated directly to the recipient; Whether the maker of the statement had made similar statements in the past; Whether the victim had reason to believe that the maker of the statement had a propensity to engage in violence. True Threats Liberty v. Security Columbine James Lavine and Case of Stolen Poem Lavine v. Blaine School District and Doe v. Pulaski County Confederate flag Billy is proud of his Southern heritage. He wears a Confederate flag jacket to school. He doesn’t mean to offend other students. However, several students complain that the jacket is insensitive and offends them. The principal orders Billy to remove the jacket or go home. The principal fears the jacket could exacerbate racial tensions at the school, which has had some racial tension. However, school officials have allowed students to wear clothing which contained other racially-tinged symbols. Underground Press A student in Milwaukee wrote an anonymous article for the school’s underground newspaper. The article was entitled “So You Want To Be A Hacker” and purportedly explained how to “hack the school’s gay ass computers.” When the administration found out who the author was, the student was expelled for one year, arguing that the article “endangered school property.” Awful Internet Frank, a public high school student created a webpage on his home computer that criticized the school principal and teachers with crude and vulgar language. The student’s homepage contained a hyperlink to the school’s webpage. Several students, upset over the sites content, accessed Frank’s homepage at school and showed the school’s computer teacher. The computer teacher then showed the school principal who was outraged. The principal suspended the student for 10 days because of the offensiveness of the speech. The principal did not speak to any other students before deciding to take disciplinary action against the student.