The Free Speech Rights of High School Students

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

“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 of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Background

“The most notable phenomenon we have observed recently is that free speech is being aggressively challenged at the high school level, including in student publications. In some cases, school administrators are squelching views they find outlandish or disagreeable, but the complaints often have less to do with ideology than with avoiding controversy of any sort. Often, after acting harshly, they have second thoughts or outsiders step in to calm the situation.”

Sanford Ungar, Free Speech Project Director, February 2019

High school censorship takes several different forms. See these examples from recent years on the Free Speech Tracker:

Related Incidents on the Free Speech Tracker

The restriction of Free Speech cuts across other genres and venues:

The Role of Free Speech

Points of View

Choose an example from the options below and use it to analyze the issue. Do these points of view change yours? Do they complicate it?

Discussion Questions

  1. Under the standard of the 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, school administrators in elementary, middle, and high schools can legally suppress speech when the censorship is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” Based on the examples you read about above, what qualifies as a “legitimate pedagogical concern”? In what cases did the school overstep and infringe on students’ First Amendment rights?
  2. What should be the role of graduation speeches and student newspapers, respectively? Given those roles, when are schools justified in censoring graduation speeches and school newspapers? 
  3. How are the Free Speech conflicts emerging in high schools similar to those you’ve heard about on college campuses? How are they different, and why? Should college students (and college newspapers) have greater Free Speech protections than high school students, and why?
  4. How might the conditions of a high school (public, private, or parochial) influence how administrators approach Free Speech? Did you ever experience suppression of Free Speech in your high school?
  5. This module has mostly discussed speech that occurred in on-campus forums, like graduation speeches or school newspapers. But some incidents — such as the racist “promposal” or the alleged Nazi salute in a prom photo — did not occur on campus, though the circumstances were still related to school activities. Should schools be allowed to regulate students’ speech when it doesn’t occur on campus? How might the type of school (public, private, or parochial) affect your answer?

Activity

Click on these themes below: Hate Speech, Press, Identity

Click on these categories below: Education

Discuss: What patterns emerge? What does this selection of stories tell us about Free Speech issues in the United States? What does it say about Free Speech on high school and college campuses?

Tracker Entries

Themes

Categories