Freedom of Expression in Public Schools


In 1969 the Supreme Court articulated one of its most cited First Amendment pronouncements when it said that “[n]either students [n]or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Tinker v. Des Moines School District, 393 U.S. 503, 89 S. Ct. 733,21 L. Ed. 2d 731 (1969). Despite the frequency in which other courts have quoted this passage in addressing the free speech rights of public school students, as a principle of First Amendment law the passage represents somewhat of an overstatement. The First Amendment does not afford public school student the same liberty to express themselves as they would otherwise enjoy if they were adults speaking their minds off school grounds. In fact, the Supreme Court has since qualified this principle by stating that a public school student’s right to free speech is “not automatically co-extensive with the rights of adults in other settings.” Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 266, 308 S. Ct. 562, 98 L. Ed. 2d592 (1988). In Hazelwood, the Court held that educators may control the style and content of school-sponsored publications, theatrical productions, and other expressive conduct, so long as the educator’s actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns. In short, student speech that is not consistent with a school’s educational mission can be censored.

Applying the standard set forth in Hazelwood, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit up held the disqualification of a candidate for student council president after he made discourteous remarks about an assistant principal during a campaign speech at a school-sponsored assembly. Poling v. Murphy, 872F.2d 757 (6th Cir. 1989). “Civility is a legitimate pedagogical concern,” the court declared. Even state universities may adopt and enforce reasonable, nondiscriminatory regulations as to the time, place, and manner of student expressions. Bayless v. Martine, 430 F.2d 873 (5th Cir. 1970). However, a state university’s refusal to recognize a gay student services organization violated the First Amendment because it denied the students’ right to freely associate with political organizations of their choosing. Gay Student Services v. Texas A&M University, 737 F.2d 1317 (5th Cir. 1984).