Gavin, an 11-year-old boy, grew out his hair so he could help those in need.
Pipper: the Supreme Court laid out in four landmark decisions. Schools may restrict students’ speech if it: is likely to disrupt school is lewd promotes illegal drug use, or is part of the curriculum or communications sponsored by the school. The younger the students, the more leeway schools have to control their speech. Several lower courts have recognized another principle: The younger the students, the more leeway schools have to control their speech. (By the same token, colleges and universities have less latitude when they try to restrict older students’ speech.) Disruptive Speech The Supreme Court found that a school violated students’ First Amendment rights by suspending them for wearing black armbands as an antiwar protest (an example of what’s known as “symbolic speech”). As the court explained, school officials may not squelch the expression of unpopular opinions just to avoid “discomfort and unpleasantness.” Instead, they need to show that the banned speech would create a “substantial disruption” at school or would violate other students’ rights. (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969).) Students, school administrators, and lower courts often disagree about what qualifies as a substantial disruption. The issue is even more complicated now, when so many controversies over disruptive speech are related to social media posts and other online speech. Courts consider several factors when deciding whether disruption from a student’s speech is too disruptive, including: Did it interfere with classwork or other school activities? Did it cause disorder on campus? Were other students so upset that they couldn’t concentrate or visited school counselors in droves? Did administrators and/or teachers have to take considerable time away from their regular duties in order to deal with the fallout? School officials don’t have to prove that a student’s speech already interfered with school before they take action. But in order to justify punishing the student, administrators do need to show that it was reasonable for them to predict that would happen. The fear of disruption has to be specific and significant. Vague or general worries aren’t enough. Along with the content of the speech, context and tone matter. Vulgar Speech In another case where a high school student gave a speech at school that was filled with explicit sexual metaphors, the Supreme Court found that the First Amendment didn’t prevent schools from disciplining children for offensively lewd and indecent speech. As the court explained, society’s interest in teaching “the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior” outweighed the student’s right to express his views in a way that was highly offensive to many of his classmates. (Bethel School Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986).) Dangerous Speech After another high school student was suspended for refusing to take down a banner reading “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” at a school event, he sued. The Supreme Court found that the principal hadn’t violated the boy’s free speech rights, because it was part of the school’s mission to protect students from messages that could be seen as promoting or celebrating illegal drug use (Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393 (2007)). Based on the reasoning in Morse, courts have given schools a fair amount of leeway in deciding whether students’ speech poses a danger to their classmates or teachers. School-Sponsored Speech and Student Journalism Teachers and other school authorities are allowed to censor or change what students write or say in school-sponsored publications (like an official school newspaper or yearbook), school plays, or other activities that involve the expression of ideas and are essentially part of the curriculum. The school must have a legitimate educational reason for the censorship. However, this broad editorial control doesn't apply if school authorities have, "by policy or by practice," allowed a school paper or online publication to become what courts call a public forum—meaning that it's an open platform for students to express themselves freely and make key decisions about content without prior approval from teachers or administrators. (Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988).) Most courts agree that this rule applies only to K-12 schools. Schools generally have less control over "underground" student journalism, whether online or in print. Also, a few states have laws that give student journalists greater free-speech protections than they have under the federal Hazelwood standard.