This week, The Eagle’s opinion writers are taking on the suspension of several New York high school students who were suspended for “Tebowing” in their school’s hallways (see Page 6). Since this imitation of the football star’s sideline prayer falls neatly into the category of self-expression, The Eagle’s editorial board felt it prudent to discuss the legal realities of free speech for students in public schools.
The most important Supreme Court decision affecting student free speech is Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.
In December 1965, a trio of Des Moines students attended school wearing black arm bands in protest of the Vietnam War. After being suspended, the students filed a suit that was carried to the Supreme Court.
The court ruled in favor of the students, contending that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
The decision established that students enjoy the right to free speech during school, so long as the speech does not cause a distraction to the learning environment. Other Supreme Court decisions, though, have tempered this right. Specifically, Bethel School District v. Fraser.
In April 1983, a Washington high school student named Matthew Fraser was suspended for delivering a speech to the student body that made extensive use of sexual innuendo. Fraser’s suit against the school reached the Supreme Court three years later, where a 7-2 ruling upheld Fraser’s suspension and established an important limitation on student free speech: that schools may restrict speech that conflicts with their basic education mission.
A bevy of other court decisions have refined and limited free speech in schools, but students in public schools still enjoy substantial freedom of expression. This fact is often overlooked by students, their parents, and administrators.
The Eagle’s editorial board urges that citizens, to more accurately and appropriately assess situations such as the “Tebowing” suspensions, learn and understand the legal specifics of student free speech and its many protections and limitations.