Student's Rights/Free Speech

AuthorJeffrey Wilson

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Sixty years ago, when the U. S. Supreme Court decided its first free speech case involving students and the public schools, the idea that students had any right to free speech would have been considered laughable at best, dangerous at worst. At that time, school was considered a privilege to attend, and rules or regulations the school sought to enforce were untouchable. This generalization was collectively true at the elementary, secondary and college levels of education.

Student rights to free speech did not really become an issue until the Vietnam War, when more and more students found themselves at opposite ends of the political spectrum from their teachers and school administrators. The Supreme Court's 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District opened the floodgates to school free speech litigation, and while court decisions have certainly gone back and forth between the right to free speech and the need to impose discipline and respect the feelings of all students, there has never been any attempt to go back to the strict free speech restrictions of the pre-Vietnam War era.

Public school free speech rights for students can be divided into those applying to elementary and secondary students and those dealing with college issues. Since college students are adults, the First Amendment situations dealt with are substantially different. Analyzing student free speech rights in this way can give a cohesive picture of those rights for students today.

Free Speech Rights in Public Schools

Free speech rights in public elementary and secondary schools have undergone a remarkable transformation in the past 30 years, from nonexistence to a perpetual tension between those rights and the need for schools to control student behavior in order to preserve the sanctity of the learning environment. Today, it would be most accurate to say that public schools students have some First Amendment rights in schools, but certainly not as many as adults do in the real world. Although Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District was the landmark case that set forth the standards which current student free speech cases are judged, the first case that suggested students had some First Amendment rights was de-

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cided much earlier—during World War II, to be exact.

West Virginia State Board of Education v Barnette

This 1943 case marked the first time the Supreme Court ever conceded students had First Amendment rights. During World War II, the West Virginia State Board of Education passed a law requiring all students to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Several students and their parents who were members of the Jehovah's Witnesses challenged the policy, arguing their religion prevented them from swearing allegiance to anyone but God, and so they could not recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The Su preme Court decided the students were in the right, and on First Amendment grounds struck down the West Virginia ordinance as violating the right of free expression.

"Educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of constitutional freedoms of the individual," said the Court, "if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes." The Court determined that students had the right not to be coerced by school administrators to doing something that disagreed with their religious beliefs. Free speech in this case meant the right not to say something, in this case, the Pledge of Allegiance.

Tinker v Des Moines Independent Community School District

After Barnette, the student First Amendment rights front was quiet in the courts, until the case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District in 1969 shattered the peace and made sure there would be controversy for a long time to come. The Vietnam War was raging full force when the students at a Des Moines, Iowa...

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