The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ..." While that phrase seems absolute, the Supreme Court has interpreted the free speech clause on several occasions and has held that in public school settings, school officials may limit free speech under certain conditions.

Constitutional Right

The right to freedom of speech is written in the US Constitution and is therefore a right enjoyed by all persons, but the meaning of the phrase can only be interpreted by courts. The Supreme Court stated in a 1969 ruling, Tinker v. Des Moines School District, that students are persons and, therefore, they do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." The Supreme Court's ruling did not view the freedom as an absolute one, noting that if student speech was disorderly, disrupted classwork or invaded the rights of others, school officials could regulate that speech.

Restrictions at All Levels

The right to restrict speech applies to all levels of education: elementary, secondary and university. In 1970, in Bayless v. Martine, the Supreme Court decided state universities could restrict the time, place and manner of student expression. Both Supreme Court and lower courts have given public school officials broad discretion in controlling speech, particularly in elementary school settings.

School-Sponsored Activities

The right to limit free speech is available to school officials solely in cases where the activity is sponsored by the school. In 1988, the Supreme Court stated in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that school officials could regulate the content of articles in the school newspaper because the newspaper was a school-sponsored activity. Nevertheless, the court also explained that any censorship must be reasonable and serve a legitimate educational concern such as poor grammar, inadequate research, bias or use of profanity.

Other Examples

The courts have considered many school cases regarding limitations to free speech since the Tinker decision. In the 1984 Gay Student Services v. Texas A&M University case, a court decided that a university’s refusal to recognize a gay student services organization violated the First Amendment by denying the students’ right to freely associate with political organizations. In contrast, in 1989, a court held in Poling v. Murphy that a student delivering discourteous remarks about an assistant principal during a campaign speech at a school-sponsored assembly could be removed as a candidate for student council.

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