Free Speech in Schools

In the spectrum of First Amendment protection, students fall somewhere in the middle. While some speech is protected by the First Amendment, there are some instances when students could find themselves in trouble.

It is important to remember that there are certain times when speech CAN be suppressed in schools. The first instance in which this is acceptable is pretty obvious. If the education process is being disrupted by the speech, then it is acceptable for the speech to be suppressed. It can also be suppressed if the speech infringes on the rights of other students or faculty. But when deciding if the speech can be regulated, there are three things to consider: the age of the audience and speaker, where the speech occurs and the educator’s responsibility. When students are in school, the teachers and administrators assume the power of loco parentis which basically means they assume the responsibility of the parents. Therefore, it is up to the school administrators and teachers to decide what kind of speech can be suppressed.

This idea is clear in the case of the Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier. In this case, Robert Reynolds, the principal of Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis, Missouri decided to censor 2 pages out of the school newspaper, The Spectrum, which dealt with teen pregnancy and divorce. Reynolds felt that students whose real identities were hidden in the story would become public. He also felt that the material may be a little too far advanced for the younger readers of the newspaper so he pulled the stories. The Supreme Court ruled in 1988 in favor of the school district because the “decision to censor was not without some educational justification”.

With this in mind, it is important to remember that school’s can not just censor articles because they feel like it or because it differs from their opinion. In the case of Dean vs. Utica, we learn more about school’s rights to prevent some forms of speech. In this case, the principal of Utica High School in Michigan, Richard Machesky pulled an article written by Katy Dean because he felt it was on sources which were not credible and inaccurate. Dean asked the school to reconsider for about a year before she finally went to court. The court then overturned the school’s ruling saying that the school acted in its own interest and prevented Dean’s expression of viewpoint because they claimed her report to be “inaccurate”.

Keeping in line with the idea of speech schools can or can not control we have the Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District. Two students, John and Mary Beth Tinker wore black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War. The principals of Des Moines schools adopted a policy banning armbands in school. Violators of this policy were suspended. This case was then taken to the Supreme Court where they decided by a vote of 7-2 that the schools must have “valid Constitutional reasons to prevent speech”. The main part of this is that the speech being conducted must create a material and substantial disruption. This principle became one of the leading terms for the deciding of the Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier case because the principal was censoring with some form of educational justification. The Court ruled in favor of the Tinker’s because their actions were silent forms of expression of speech and didn’t pose any dangers.

Tying all of these cases of speech in school together is a case currently going on with the Easton Area Middle School District. The school district is being sued by two students, Brianna Hawk and Kayla Martinez, who both were suspended for refusing to take off the “I Heart Boobies” bands that support breast cancer awareness and research. The school believes that the word “boobies” is inappropriate for the school. This case is still in court, but if I had to say which side I think will win, I think the students will. As we seen in the Tinker vs. Des Moines case, the school must prove that the speech poses a material and substantial disruption. In my opinion, I don’t see how a bracelet for breast cancer awareness creates a disruption. Just like the Tinker vs. Des Moines case again, this is a silent form of expression of speech that the school should not be able to suppress.

On the other side, it is important to remember that these students are still in middle school. Keeping in mind the idea of loco parentis brought forward in the Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier case, the teachers and administration assume the role of parents while the students are in school. Therefore, some of the teachers and administration may find this word “boobies” offensive. The problem is that some of the teachers or administrators may believe its offensive while others may not. As we saw in the Dean vs. Utica case, the schools aren’t allowed to act based upon personal opinion, so that too would pose trouble to the school district in this case.
At the end of the day though, as I mentioned earlier, I believe the courts will side with the students in this case because their expression of speech is a silent one and one which does not present a material and substantial disruption. The school does not really have an educational purpose for preventing their speech. Therefore, the students should be allowed to wear the bracelets.

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