Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Free Speech in Public Schools

The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech. That seems to be well established. However, people continually have problems determining what exactly is free speech? What is protected?

I think most people can agree that not all speech should be protected by the First Amendment. I'll ask a question regarding its application at public schools.

As best as I can figure it, there seems to be a limit to protecting free speech at schools to public statements about public affairs. For example, if you speak out against a proposed levy for the school board because of certain disagreements with it, that would likely be protected. However, explaining how the principal is a sumbitch for taking out a picture of her in the yearbook because she disliked it likely would not be protected, and would probably get you suspended.

I pose the following question: at what point, if any, should there be a limit on free speech by students and faculty at public schools? If you could draw the line, where would you draw it?

I look forward to your replies.


Bellejar said...

I remember a particular case that was being litigated by the ACLU while I was in college. A boy went to school in a shirt that said "Hitler World Tour 1939-1945" It listed names of concentration camps on the back instead of tour cities. Yeah that is my definition of over the line. School to me is inherently different than most places of public discourse, because its function is to educate. I think once speech becomes truly disruptive to that process it should probably be not allowed, Good Question Steve!

Gramma said...

I had my own battle with free speech in high school, back in the dark ages (when we did actual paste ups with our school paper by candlelight and rode to school on dinosaurs - 1967). As editor, I ran an editorial that criticized the effectiveness of our school counselors. Our principal felt that was over the line.

We had thoughtfully considered the subject and carefully written the editorial, not to be offensive, but to suggest we weren't getting what we thought we needed.

That being said, I think that high school students often, although not always, are guilty of hideously poor taste and offensiveness in the name of "making a statement" or even "being cool." Prince Charles' own son went to a costume party dressed as a Nazi. Excuse me? This isn't poor taste; it is insulting and insensitive to hundreds of thousands of jews who lived in concentration camps, Brits who suffered the Blitzkrieg, veterans of all nations who fought to free Europe from Hitler's megalomaniacal plans of world domination. Over the line.

What are parents teaching? Are we such a ME-dominated culture now that we don't teach our children to care about others? Have we become insensitive to subject matter? What will people find next to glorify? Instead of Hitler, will it be children who are raped? Where do we draw that line?

And while I'm on my rant, I wonder how mutilating our faces became "freedom of expression?" I asked a young man at Starbuck's if it was a Rule that, to work there, they had to have metal pierced into their faces? He laughed as if I were joking. I wasn't. I find it distasteful and it looks unclean.

My hope is that the pendulum has reached the limit of its arc, and soon will swing back the other way -- but that's frightening, too, because King Bush is on that side.

Ymarsakar said...

Line is when your free speech violates someone else's rights under the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Steve said...


I agree with your assessment, however, your answer begs the question. At what point does speech violate the constitutional rights of others? Should something in a school be disallowed merely because it's offensive to some? Should the Lemon test rule with respect to religion?

You went to Starbucks. I'm not sure there's anything else to say there.

I'm afraid that any bright line that might be drawn would not just be arbitrary, but drawn in the dirt, so that it could easily be erased and redrawn according to another's agenda. I think the best answer might just be the pat 1L answer - it depends. It depends on the circumstances, it depends on the severity, the location, the subject and the object, any number of things. I think the reasonable person standard would work well in this capacity for the minutia.