Free Speech in School
The Importance of Speech and Objectivity: Part 1
By Courtney Duke Graves
Since the ratification of the Constitution, America has enjoyed a level of free speech unseen in many parts of the world. Laws and movements threatening to stifle this right crop up from time to time, but we rely on our court system to protect us from such trespasses on our liberty.
Unfortunately, this system isn’t always perfect. Very rarely do we see free speech hit by a blanket law from Congress. More often than not, it’s hit by smaller government agencies closer to home: public schools.
It’s up to us as parents, educators and students to know our first amendment rights when it comes to school. Click to Tweet
What does free speech look like in American schools?
This is by no means trying to paint all public schools as tyrants; school boards are made of concerned parents and teachers, and I believe most, if not all, have the children’s best interest at heart.
The McCollum v. Board of Education Supreme Court case set precedent when it decided a public school board violated the 1st Amendment’s Establishment Clause when it allowed a private group to offer voluntary religious classes on school property, and during school hours.
Teachers aren’t allowed to “proselytize” students to their personal religious/political/ideological views, and schools cannot officially sponsor any religious/political activity. However, this rule sometimes goes so far as to wrongfully ban teachers from participating in speech and activities they have a right to.
Schools limit the speech of students while they’re on campus, too. Almost every school in the U.S. has a dress code that disallows expressions of profanity, violence, sex and drugs on clothing. Furthermore, all 50 states have laws mandating children attend some form of school, so public schools can legally discipline students for participating in walk-out protests.
In English and literature classes, the issue of free speech gets even stickier, for both teachers and students.
Teachers can’t pass out Bibles, Qurans or other religious texts, but they can assign passages of religious texts to study literary devices, ancient history records, or to explain religious symbolism and references in other texts.
How should teachers and students exercise their first amendment rights in school?
1. Express beliefs in the appropriate situations.
If a student asks a teacher outside of school about what they believe, the teacher is free to express his or her beliefs to the student, so long as he/she doesn’t use their authority position over the student to influence the student’s opinions.
2. Promote civic and religious activity of all kinds, without discrimination, outside of school-sponsored functions.
Schools may offer their grounds after-hours to host churches, political meetings, and other functions, so long as school employees aren’t directly involved in administering it, and the grounds are equally available for other similar groups to use.
3. Know your rights, and bring a case to court if you feel your rights have been infringed upon.
Schools don’t have a right to limit or punish student, staff or faculty speech outside of school. This has serious impacts for our increasingly technological world. Under certain situations, principals may search a student’s private property, such as a coat or backpack. Does that mean they can search a cell phone? Can schools punish students for cyber-bullying another student at the school? These questions have come up in court systems, but decisions have been varied and conflicting, so there’s no straight answer as of yet. The only thing that will give us a clearer answer in the future is to continue using the court system to protect individual liberties.
For the most part, students are allowed to bring and/or pass out whatever books they want to school, as long as it doesn’t interfere with instruction time and it’s not obscene. That will bring us to our next post: “Free Speech in School, Part 2: Book Banning.”
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