The Government Is Killing Students’ Free Speech

Josh Hughes | @joshh51099

Since the founding of the United States, individuals have been passionate about their rights to speech and expression. This passion is not limited to adults; students of all ages have their own beliefs they have the right to express. But sadly, schools across the nation have attempted to suppress that right. For this reason, in 1969 (Tinker v. Des Moines), the Supreme Court decided that students have First Amendment rights in the classroom. Unfortunately, subsequent cases have tread on this right and limited free speech for students.

A First Amendment Double Standard

Over and over again, the courts have ruled that students do not have the same rights as adults in the classroom. In the case Bethel School District v. Fraser, the court decided that schools could suspend students for “lewd and indecent language” without violating the First Amendment. This clearly limited the things students could say while in school.

However, the same does not apply to adults. In Cohen v. California, the court ruled that it was unconstitutional to restrict free speech for being offensive. Justice John Marshall Harlan clearly stated, “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.” While school administrators may not agree with the words students use, if it is not directly disrupting the learning environment it is wrong to prohibit it.

At the very least, school rulebooks should define inappropriate speech that is subject to suspension. This was not the case for Matthew Fraser, so the school was able to decide right and wrong on whatever whim suited them. If inappropriate speech is free speech for adults, then it should be such for students in a public school. If the First Amendment does not apply to every individual equally, then what good is it?

Symbolic Free Speech

Schools have also attempted to hinder students’ rights to symbolic speech. In 1931, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment guarantees “symbolic speech or expressive conduct” (Stromberg v. California). Nonetheless, Tinker v. Des Moines is one example of many where schools tried to prohibit this.

In 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that schools could ban the display of the Confederate flag on student apparel without violating the First Amendment (Hardwick v. Heyward). Their reasoning was that the flag was causing disruptions while in school. This leads to a slippery slope. At what point does a school draw the line of what is acceptable and what is not? How many students have to dislike another student’s expression before the government bans it?

The First Amendment is not in place to protect the speech that is popular, but rather to protect the controversial speech. In a state like South Carolina, which has a history of rebellion and defiance to the federal government, many people are proud of being the first state to secede during the Civil War. Whether or not this view is good or bad is irrelevant. Students, while in a public school, ought to have the right to peacefully express themselves.

Further First Amendment Abridgements

Schools did not stop at trying to ban the Confederate flag. In 2014, in the case Dariano v. Morgan Hill Unified School District, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that a school did not violate the First Amendment when they prohibited students from wearing American flag apparel to school on Cinco de Mayo. The fact that the school tried to ban American students from wearing clothes with an American flag on it in the United States of America is absurd.

This takes us back to the slippery slope from Hardwick v. Heyward. Where do schools draw the line of what is acceptable? The courts have empowered schools to ban student expression of anything that is considered unpopular. Is this not what the First Amendment was created for? If students are not even allowed to wear American flag apparel to schools, then what can they wear?

A Devolution of Rights

In the 50 years since the decision of Tinker v. Des Moines, the rights of speech and expression for students have greatly devolved. Schools have continuously attempted to suppress the opinions and expressions of adolescents who are in a period of their life where self-expression is paramount. The courts have also continuously allowed this desecration of the First Amendment to continue.

It is saddening to see the government’s attempt to suppress students while in a public school, the place where expression and free speech should be at its height. While there is certainly an appropriate time and place for some sensitive issues, there is no excuse for this blatant censorship of ideas. The First Amendment should apply to every individual in every public setting. If it does not, then it is invalid. In the future, the courts must give the full rights guaranteed in the First Amendment back to the students.

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