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Do Students Maintain Freedom of Speech at the Schoolhouse Gate?

In 1965 in Des Moines, Iowa, students at a local school sported armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The immediate response by the school district was to ban the armbands leading to the Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, in which the ruling expressed that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Although the Court upheld that students are protected under the first amendment, do students really maintain their freedom of speech in schools? As a high school student, I find myself asking this question frequently.

School districts can stop obscene and disruptive speech or symbolic speech, but only for dress code violations. For example, schools can require students to remove any hat if hats are inconsistent with their dress code; however, if hats are allowed per dress code, they cannot selectively remove a potentially controversial one (e.g., NRA or BLM hat). The ACLU states, referring to students, “You have the right to speak out, hand out flyers and petitions, and wear expressive clothing in school, as long as you don’t disrupt the functioning of the school or violate the school’s content-neutral policies.” They go on to say, “What counts as ‘disruptive’ will vary by context, but a school disagreeing with your position or thinking your speech is controversial or in ‘bad taste’ is not enough to qualify.” By speaking out though, students face repercussions that serve as a form of suppression and a threat to students’ first amendment rights. Although it is not directly banning students’ free speech, it is punishing them for it afterwards. What students say in school, even if it’s not derogatory or directed towards another student, can result in disciplinary action. While students’ social media accounts are being monitored outside of school, student protests are getting shut down by administrators. Although Tinker v. Des Moines ruled that students cannot be censored to avoid conflict, schools continue doing so.

When the Tinker v. Des Moines decision was made in 1969, social media did not exist. Students could talk to their friends without fear of a school administrator listening in. Now in the digital age, students’ posts can be monitored for criticism of the school or inappropriate language. According to the New York Times in 2016, a student was sent to the principal’s office for bullying when she posted tweets regarding Israel. In the tweets she never mentioned another student’s name. This is not an isolated case of student suppression. ACLU Staff Attorney Lee Rowland states, “School officials aren’t permitted to listen in on chatter at students’ private gatherings with friends, or rifle through their private videos and photo albums.” Although students should not get in trouble for posts outside of school that pose no real problem in school, threats towards students’ safety and cyberbullying is a different matter that should be managed.

After the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, many students participated in school walkouts in protest of the loose gun laws in America. Although students could get in trouble for participating in a school walkout, as they are required by law to be in school, they could not get a harsher punishment than someone who skipped school because they were protesting. However, many students’ voices were silenced, including at my school where students needed approval to hand out orange ribbons to recognize the lives lost during the Parkland shooting. The same group of students also planned a walkout that the administrators shut down. They then turned right around and executed it themselves, giving the students no credit for their peaceful protest and effectively suppressing their voices for their own political gain. The current system of suppressing student voices by punishing them is an abuse of power that denies students their basic fundamental rights. The Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Tinker v. Des Moines, written by Justice Abe Fortas, states, “State-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students... are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect.”

Students are allowed to speak up in school and should be encouraged to do so as adults are encouraged to. Freedom of speech is a basic right that should be taught to students, not just through curriculum but through the actions of schools. If we maintain status quo, however, and allow students to be suppressed at a young age, precedent suggests to them that it is okay to be censored as adults. Based on the student’s individual comfort and safety level and as long as it is appropriate and not derogatory, they should express themselves freely.


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