Public school students have a wide range of constitutional ways to express themselves when they exercise their First Amendment rights. However, public school officials act as extensions of the government who may ban or regulate a student’s freedom of speech. Public school administrators use multiple approaches and tests to review the constitutionality of their policies but find it difficult to establish a standard. School administrators must find a balance between educational goals and the student’s First Amendment rights. The Court permits infringements of student speech in public schools when one interferes with the learning environment of the school or disobeys its content-neutral policies.
Throughout history, school administrators enacted speech regulations to protect the educational purpose of schools. The most compelling reason for a public school official to censor speech is if it “foreseeably creates a risk of substantial disruption” of educational activities or discipline of the school (Trager 142). After the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, many public school students participated in school walkouts to protest gun violence. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “The First Amendment does not consider a walkout [as] protected speech” (ACLU). Therefore, in 2018, 1,100 students in Community High School District 99 in Downers Grove faced “various consequences for violating school policy and leaving class unexcused” because they participated in the walkout (Chicago 5).
While these students are free to participate in civil disobedience, the school administrators may punish students for disrupting other student’s education. School officials may also regulate or discipline a student’s off-campus speech or online speech if they harass another student, which interferes with their ability to function at school, or if the speech is “sufficiently threatening and disruptive” (Trager 142). They are permitted to do this because protecting students is of great importance for school officials. The Court justifies these speech regulations because the government deems public schools as limited public forums.
The school administration and faculty decide the course content, which is appropriate to teach to their students. To create a positive learning atmosphere, “Sometimes courts have accepted the idea that the nation’s interest in developing its youth outweighs the free speech rights of public school students” (Trager 136). When young students are present, especially in the audience of a school-sponsored event, a public school official may censor speech promoting illegal drug use, crude language, threats, reputation-damaging remarks, or violence-inciting statements. For instance, Matthew Fraser believed he had the First Amendment right to address an assembly of young students using indecent language and sexual references in his speech. The school considered his language “a ‘palpable’ danger to established school policy” (Trager 139).
The forum Fraser spoke in suggested he spoke on behalf of the school and made it seem as if the school endorsed the message of his speech. School administrators may also censor student newspapers produced by public schools for the same reason. Therefore, the Supreme Court deemed it “perfectly appropriate for a school to impose student sanctions to disassociate the school from speech that threatened its core purpose” (Trager 140). The Courts try to advance public school educational goals without completely stripping its students of their First Amendment rights upon entering the building.
ACLU of Mississippi. “Your First Amendment Guide to Student Walkouts.” ACLU of
Mississippi, https://www.aclu-ms.org/en/your-first-amendment-guide-student-walkouts Accessed 12 Oct. 2019
Chicago 5. “More than 1,000 Students Face Discipline for Joining Nationwide School Walkout Over Gun Violence.” NBC Universal Media, https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/downers-grove-school-walkout-discipline-detention-parkland-477115933.html Accessed 12 Oct. 2019