Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ; or the right of people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.
Three public school students in Des Moines, Iowa, decided to wear black arm bands to protest the involvement of the U.S. in the Vietnam war. When the school district officials found out about their plan, they ordered them NOT to wear the arm bands.
But the students chose to exercise their freedom of expression, and they wore the armbands against the express instructions of their school administration. They were suspended.
The case went to court, and eventually ended up in the Supreme Court. In presenting the majority opinion, Justice Abe Fortas said:
“ First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. This has been the unmistakable holding of this Court for almost 50 years.”
So the Supreme Court held that students and teachers have First Amendment rights and they do not give up these rights when they enter school. Although this case dealt with freedom of speech, it was expanded to include other First Amendment freedoms, including freedom of the press.
Tinker v. DesMoines established that students were free to express themselves so long as the expression did not disrupt the school day. This is the “Tinker Standard.”
From 1969 to 1987, student newspapers enjoyed considerable freedom of the press.
However, in the 1980s, America was much more conservative than it had been in the flower-powered era of the 60s and 70s. The Vietnam War had ended and hippies were no longer marching, holding sit-ins and demonstrations, and the membership of the Supreme Court had undergone a few changes.
School districts, wary of protests and demonstrations by students, had begun to exercise more control over what went on inside the schools. Policies were written and enforced to prevent or provide punishments for activities that the administration felt were harmful.
Matthew Fraser, a high school student in Bethel, Washington, delivered a speech nominating a fellow student for a student elective office. The speech was made during school hours as a part of a school-sponsored educational program in self-government. The voluntary assembly was attended by about 600 students, many of whom were 14-year-olds.
Throughout the speech, the student deliberately referred to his candidate in terms of an elaborate and explicit sexual metaphor. The reactions of the students varied from enthusiastic hooting and yelling to embarrassment and bewilderment. Before the speech, the student had discussed it with several teachers, and two teachers told him they thought it was not appropriate.
The student was suspended for three days for having violated the school's "disruptive conduct" rule, which prohibited conduct that substantially interfered with the educational process, including the use of obscene, profane language or gestures.
The parents of Matthew Fraser filed suit against the Bethel schools, and the case eventually landed in the Supreme Court.
At issue was the following question: Is the suspension of a student for the use of obscene or vulgar language in a public forum at school a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech?
No. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the school board acted entirely within its permissible authority in punishing Fraser for "his offensively lewd and indecent speech." This was not a situation where Fraser was sanctioned for expressing a political viewpoint as in the Tinker "armband" case; the sexual innuendo was incidental to the merits of the candidate who was being nominated.
"It is a highly appropriate function of public school education to prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse . . . Schools must teach by example the shared values of a civilized social order."
The Court repeated its recognition of an interest in protecting minors from exposure to vulgar and offensive spoken language. Even in a heated political discourse among adults, the Court emphasized the need for consideration for the personal sensibilities of the audience.
“ A high school assembly or classroom is no place for a sexually explicit monologue directed towards an unsuspecting audience of teenage students." The Court also stated that the school regulation and the negative reactions of two teachers gave Fraser sufficient notice that his speech might result in his suspension.
While the Supreme Court did not reverse its earlier ruling that students retained their rights at school, it did clarify some things about “disruption of the school day”, and it gave school administrators the right to attempt to control what went on within the school walls.
Cathy Kuhlmeier and two other students of Hazelwood East High School who were staff members of Spectrum, the school newspaper, contended that school officials violated their First Amendment rights by deleting two pages from the May 13, 1983 issue.
Written and edited by the Journalism II class, Spectrum was published every three weeks or so during the school year and was distributed to students, school personnel, and members of the community. The Board of Education allocated funds for the publication, supplemented by sales income.
The practice was for the teacher to submit page proofs to the principal for approval prior to publication. When the teacher, Emerson, delivered the proofs to the principal on May 10, the principal objected to two articles: one describing three anonymous Hazelwood students' experiences with pregnancy, and the other discussed the impact of divorce on students at the school.
These two pages also included articles on teenage pregnancy (in general), teenage marriage, runaways, and juvenile delinquents, with regard to which the principal claimed he had no objections.
The Missouri District Court ruled that the students' rights had not been violated. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the newspaper was a "public forum," intended as a conduit for student viewpoint, and thus school officials could not censor its contents except when necessary to avoid "material and substantial" interference with school work or discipline and that such a necessity did not exist in this situation.
The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the case. At issue were the following questions:
1. Do educators violate students' First Amendment rights by exercising editorial control over student speech in school- sponsored publications? a. Can the school newspaper, Spectrum, be characterized as a forum for public expression? b. Did the principal act reasonably in requiring the deletion of two pages from the May, 1988 issue of Spectrum?
Decisions: I. As long as the educators' actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns, they do not violate the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over school-sponsored publications. a. No, Spectrum is not a forum for public expression. b. Yes, the principal acted reasonably in this situation
Three justices dissented, stating that the principal could not have possibly forecasted disruption to the school day by the publication of the articles in question and said he did not act reasonably.