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Students! Know Your Rights: Freedom of Speech and Expression

Students! Know Your Rights: Table of Contents >>

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 Freedom of Speech and Expression

During high school, it’s natural to want to express who you are, what you like, and what you think. You might choose to express yourself by the way you dress, the music you listen to, the websites you create and read, and the politics in which you participate. The First Amendment protects all of these rights, and these rights are not left outside the schoolhouse door. 7  However, certain student rights can still be limited to prevent disruptions at school.

Time, place, and manner restrictions

Schools can impose reasonable rules and restrictions on when, where, and how students may express themselves. For example, while you do have the right to express your opinions, you do not have a right to speak out in the middle of class on an unrelated topic.

Content-based restrictions

Although schools are not allowed to suppress your political views, they can limit some expression in order to teach “the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior.” 8

Schools may regulate the following types of speech: 9

  • school-sponsored speech (which may take place in a classroom, at an assembly, or at a graduation ceremony);
  • vulgar, lewd, and offensive speech;
  • speech that causes a disruption in school or is reasonably likely to;
  • speech that interferes with other students’ rights;
  • speech that incites other students to illegal activity; 10
  • speech that is “obscene”; 11
  • speech that makes false personal attacks.

School officials will determine when speech falls into one of these prohibited categories. For example, a school official might find a message obscene even if a student does not. Although school officials make these decisions, they must maintain objectivity. The officials cannot act just because they do not like a message.

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Student demonstrations

School authorities generally have no right to restrict students’ participation in demonstrations held off campus and after school hours, although they are responsible for students’ disorderly conduct on the way to or from school.

However, in a 2007 case, the Supreme Court held that Alaska school officials did not violate a student’s free speech rights when they punished him for displaying a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner during a public event held across the street from the school. The court felt that the event was school sponsored and the message promoted the use of drugs so the school administrator was within her rights to discipline the student. 13

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Student clubs

Equal Access Act

Under the Equal Access Act, student groups in public high schools may not be denied access to school facilities for meetings if the school allows other “non-curriculum related” groups to meet on school property before or after school. 15  The school may not discriminate against a group based on the religious, political or philosophical nature of its activities. Utah requires that a student have parental consent to join a club and that all clubs have faculty oversight, whether it is a curriculum or non-curriculum group or club.

A student group is “non-curriculum related” if:

  • the subject matter of the group is not taught in a class;
  • the group’s subject matter does not concern the student body as a whole; and
  • participation in the group is not required for a course and does not result in credit. 16

For example, a Spanish club that teaches Spanish would likely be “curriculum related” under the Equal Access Act, but a community service group is usually considered a “non-curriculum related club.”

If your school does permit extracurricular clubs, it must ensure that:

  • the meetings are voluntary and student-initiated;
  • the meetings are not sponsored by your school or the government;
  • the meetings do not interfere with school activities; and
  • people from outside your school do not regularly participate in the group’s activities. 17

The law does not require a school to provide any funding for student group meetings other than the cost of using the school space. It also provides school officials with the authority to maintain order and discipline on campus. Most schools have a policy on student groups, so you should familiarize yourself with the rules before forming a club.

Religious clubs

Students are allowed to form religious clubs under the law, but school and government officials cannot influence the club’s activities or require anyone to participate. Faculty and staff members may attend the meetings, but they cannot participate. 18

Gay-straight alliances

Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) are student clubs that work to address bullying and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) students. These groups promote respect for all students, regardless of sexual orientation. 19

The Equal Access Act allows students to form GSAs or other clubs that promote the rights of LGBT students. Public schools may not prohibit GSAs if they allow other non-curriculum related groups — no matter how administrators feel about the clubs’ message. 20

More information about Students’ Right to Form Gay/Straight Alliances >>

gsabuttonStart a GSA Today

Gay Straight Alliances are school clubs that aim to create safe and supportive environments for all students. The ACLU of Utah is committed to protecting students’ constitutional rights, and we can advocate on behalf of students whose schools are trying to block GSAs or are treating GSAs differently than other student clubs. Contact us if you are having trouble getting approval for a GSA at your school.

Read more and watch a video >>

 Did you know?

Many high schools have tried to ban gay-straight alliances (GSAs) from meeting at school. Federal courts have struck down these attempts and ordered school administrators to allow GSAs to meet. If your school refuses to let you start such a club, contact the ACLU. 21

 

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Bulletin boards

Schools often provide bulletin boards for student clubs to use. If your school allows even one club to post fliers and other information on its bulletin board, then it must allow all student clubs to do so. Schools cannot prohibit some clubs from using the bulletin boards because they do not agree with the opinions of those clubs. However, your school can forbid students from putting up flyers that are obscene or promote violence.

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Know Your Rights!

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Matt wants to form a student chapter of the ACLU at his public high school. School administrators do not want any controversial clubs at the school, and have forbidden him from having such a group. Instead, they suggested that he start a break-dancing club that will not involve politics. Is this okay?

No. The Equal Access Act applies here too. If the school permits any other non-curriculum related groups, then it must allow an ACLU club as well. School officials may not discriminate based on the political nature of the group.

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Newspapers and handouts

The First Amendment protects speech, including newspapers and other publications. But students don’t always have the same protection as adults. Schools can regulate your speech in order to maintain school safety and their educational mission. 22

There are different standards for students when speech is school-sponsored. The U.S. Supreme Court defines “school-sponsored speech” as any activity that parents, students, and community members would think that the school approved of. 23

 Schools may control the content of school-sponsored speech, including student newspapers, yearbooks, literary magazines, on-campus videos, and radio broadcasts. Schools can ban publication of materials that they think substantially interfere with schoolwork or that might infringe on the rights of other students. 24

School officials can control the content of school-sponsored publications for educational reasons. This means that schools can edit writing that they think is “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased, prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature readers.” 25 Schools cannot remove an article from a student newspaper simply because they don’t agree with the views expressed in the article. 26

School officials also cannot censor an article that criticizes the school or school officials. 27

But what if you’ve produced a publication off campus and with your own resources? As long as the publication isn’t sponsored or funded by your school and isn’t part of a class or school project, then your school cannot control its content. 28 Further, in most cases, students can distribute these publications to other students without prior approval from the school. 29

A school may forbid distribution of publications on campus if the content is vulgar and offensive or might interrupt schoolwork. And, schools can still restrict the time, place, and manner of distribution of publications, even when they are not school sponsored. 30

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Online speech

The First Amendment protects Internet content the same way that it protects books, speeches, and newspapers. 31 If you use the Internet at school, your activity can be regulated just like school-sponsored speeches and newspapers, based on where the website, email, or blog is created.

Schools generally cannot punish you for what you say or print on your own time with your own resources. Emails sent from home to a friend’s home are usually considered speech outside of school.

A school may limit your online speech if it is created during school hours, using school resources, such as the school computer lab, or if it will disrupt school activities. Your school can create guidelines for what is appropriate content, such as prohibiting vulgarity or blatantly sexual content. Some courts require that before the school can punish you or censor your message, the school board must first be able to point to a specific reason as to why your speech would disrupt classroom activities. 32

True threats

True threats are plans for harming other students, school officials, or yourself. If a website, blog, or email, regardless of when or where it is created, contains a true threat, school officials can punish a student for creating it and/or notify the police of potential danger.

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Know Your Rights!

teen-at-computerJared made a website on his home computer to show off snowboarding skills. Some of the student snowboarders in the background made crude gestures in the pictures and videos. Jared also called certain school administrators and other students “freaks.” The school suspended Jared for the rest of the year and one insulted teacher lowered his grade. Is this OK?

The school cannot punish Jared for what he did outside of school, no matter what his website says, unless it causes a disruption in school or if it contains “true threats.” A school or a teacher cannot lower a student’s grades just because the student said something bad about the school or a teacher. 33

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Censorship

Textbooks and libraries

The U.S. Supreme Court does not allow a school to remove books from school library shelves simply because the school officials dislike the ideas they contain. The Court views school libraries as the main place where students exercise their freedom to learn. 34 But schools have wide leeway about what books they select, or remove, from the libraries. For instance, a book can be removed if it is “pervasively vulgar,” or if it is not “educationally suitable.” 35

Schools have broader control over textbook and curriculum selections, those books you read for class. The Supreme Court recognized that schools bear the task of teaching community values and can select books in line with those values. 36

Internet

Schools often block Internet content on school computers based on guidelines they create. There is a disagreement as to whether a school should be able to block access to certain sites. Some argue that certain sites are disruptive and contain improper content for in-school reading. Others say that blocking some sites may prevent students from having access to useful resources. If you believe your school has blocked a site unfairly, speak to your teachers or principal about why you think there should be access.

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Know Your Rights!

rapmusicJustin wrote rap lyrics and put them up on the Internet. The rap lyrics referred to killing some of Justin’s fellow students. Justin wrote the lyrics at home and put them on the Internet from his home computer. The school suspended Justin, saying that the lyrics were a true threat and that they have the right to punish him for the content of the lyrics. Are Justin’s lyrics a true threat?

It depends. Some courts have ruled that rap lyrics alone are not a true threat. 37 However, if the lyrics or the website contained anything else besides the lyrics, such as instructions, pictures of the weapons, or a detailed plan, the website could be seen as a true threat. 38 If it is a true threat, Justin could be in trouble with the school and the law.

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Dress codes

Clothes can be a form of silent expression, and like regular expression, your clothes cannot disrupt school. 39 Even though there is legal protection for silent expression under the First Amendment, Utah law allows its school boards to make reasonable dress codes. Just because you do not like your school’s dress code, that alone is not enough reason for a First Amendment challenge. 40 If you are concerned that something you wear might get you in trouble, check to see if there is a dress code and if the school actively enforces it.

Some school boards believe a dress code helps maintain a safe and orderly educational environment. Courts have held that dress codes must balance students’ rights to dress as they wish against the school’s interest in maintaining this safe and orderly environment. 41

School uniforms and dress codes

Schools may establish and follow uniform and dress code policies. Utah Code §53A-15-1101(4). Utah school boards can implement school-uniform policies but must first hold a public hearing. If 20% of the students’ parents sign a petition objecting to the policy and the petition is presented to the local board within 30 days of the adoption of the policy, an election must be held to consider revocation of the uniform policy. 42

T-shirts

School officials cannot ban t-shirts simply because they do not like the message. However, school boards can ban t-shirts with “indecent” speech or messages that could cause violence or disruption in school. Many courts have addressed what kinds of t-shirts are permissible in school. For example, your school may not forbid you from wearing a t-shirt that criticizes the President or that contains any other political message, because the First Amendment covers political speech, even in school. 43 On the other hand, courts have said that a school can make rules limiting speech containing vulgar language, sexual innuendo, or messages that promote suicide, drugs, alcohol, or murder. 44

Read the ACLU of Utah Resource Paper on School Dress Codes >>

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Know Your Rights!

punkDM 468x823Terry has a mohawk and a tongue ring. His old school in Ohio did not have a problem with his look, but in Utah, his school asked him to take out his tongue ring and cut his hair to his collar. Can his new school stop him from having long hair and a tongue ring?

Yes. A school can have reasonable dress codes, including bans on piercings, tattoos, or certain prom or graduation attire. Even if one school allows long hair and piercings, that does not mean that a different school must allow the same thing. 45 In fact, some courts do not see tattoos and piercings as protected speech under the First Amendment at all, so schools can make rules as they see fit. 46

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Know Your Rights!

QKARoger and other students wore a t-shirt to school, they designed which stated “Queers Kick Ash” as a part of an anti-smoking campaign aimed at LGBT youth. They were suspended. The vice principal also threatened to bring the gay-straight alliance to a “screeching halt” Can the school punish the students for wearing the t-shirts?

No. Schools in Utah are allowed to have a dress code to help maintain a safe and orderly environment. If the school wants to ban a certain article of clothing, it must tell the student body in advance or have a specific reason why that type of clothing would cause disruption or violence at school. In this instance the shirts benefited the campaign against youth smoking, were a political statement, and did not disrupt school except for the administrations actions, so the students were reinstated and allowed to wear the shirts.

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