Matthew Lynch: Student Rights to Free Speech

Dr. Lynch discusses the importance of the First Amendment and its implications on student and campus life.


Matthew Lynch

Apart from the Fourth Amendment, the most important amendment pertaining to student rights is the First Amendment. The Free Speech Clause prohibits any new law that might curb the students’ freedom of speech. In practice, the issue was illustrated through the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District case of 1969. The case involved the sensitive issue of the conflict in Vietnam. Certain students decided to put forth their objections to the war by wearing black armbands. This apparently was not received well by school authorities, and they decided to take the strict action of suspending any student who wore a black armband.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the matter was groundbreaking, and the school’s stand was criticized outright. At the same time, the court ruled that the right to free speech could be exercised, so long as it did not disrupt the educational process in any way. Any protest or activity that interferes with normal school activities, or disrupts the peace of the school, even in the slightest manner, can be curbed lawfully.

The point is clearly exemplified in the case where a federal appellate judge disqualified a student campaigning to be elected by the student body because of the objectionable comments the student made about the school administration. This form of censorship was legitimized by law on the basis that it would ultimately be in the student’s favor as it would help him understand other students’ feelings and have more respect for them. In the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlemier case for instance, the court ruled that school administrators have every right to control and check the content published in school sponsored newspapers and magazines. The justification given was that these form a part of the curriculum and everything that could possibly influence students deserves to be scrutinized by school authorities. The case involved a newspaper published by the journalism class at Missouri’s Hazelwood High School. The articles published discussed issues such as divorce and pregnancy; content school authorities determined was inappropriate for high school students. Authorities also feared that the fictitious names used in the articles were not enough guard the privacy of the students whose opinions were published, and lives discussed in the newspaper. However, the students who were involved thought differently, and believed that the discussion of such topics was appropriate for students of their age.

While the First Amendment without a doubt, endows students with freedom of speech, this does not mean that they can behave in any manner they please. It is very much within the jurisdiction of the school authorities to prevent or prohibit students from indulging in certain activities that may potentially pose a threat to a school environment conducive to learning.

The Tinker case discussed earlier can be cited here as well. The school was denied the right to prevent students from wearing black armbands as a mark of their protest, but at the same time, they were free to suspend or take suitable punitive action against students who acted in a manner that disturbed the positive learning atmosphere. If a student was caught indulging in activities such as igniting political commotion or voicing his or her opinions in a manner that disrupted teaching and learning, he or she could justly be suspended by the school and the law made every provision for that to occur.

Similar decisions were made in the case of the Bethel School Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser in 1986, and the Jones v. State case in 2002. The former dealt with the court upholding the suspension of a student who delivered a nominating speech that involved comments of a sexual nature about a fellow student. Similarly, in the latter case, the court took the clear stance that students’ use of fighting words and threats was prohibited in schools. The category included racial epithets, lewd and offensive speech, immature conduct or true threats that could possibly lead to harming another person.

Exercising free speech is not just limited to student behavior. It in fact extends to the realms of student newspapers, plays and literature. While students do enjoy their due rights, teachers have some control. The following falls within the school’s authority when it comes to curbing freedom of expression that may be disruptive to the learning environment:

  • Teachers or school authorities are required to collect concrete proof against students indulging in indecent speech, potential disruption or other unacceptable activities before taking action against them.
  • Students must be provided with due process when any sort of punishment is involved.
  • The banning of indecent, inappropriate and unacceptable material is acceptable by the school in cases where it contradicts the mission of the school.
  • School authorities have the final word on deciding the time and place of the distribution of certain materials.
  • The school newspaper must be run subject to legally defensible guidelines.
  • The nature of the school newspaper must be decided beforehand. If it is decided to be an open forum rather than a curriculum-based letter, the students ought to be provided with due rights to express their opinions.
  • A well-established procedure for reviewing newspaper submissions ought to exist to make the process smoother.

Dr. Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Widener University. Dr. Lynch is the author of three forthcoming books; Its Time for Change: School Reform for the Next Decade (Rowman & Littlefield 2012), A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories (Routledge 2012), and The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching (Pearson 2013). To read more of his work, please visit his blog at He can be contacted at


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September 6th, 2011

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