First Amendment Cases

These are some materials I wrote several years ago for discussion with high school students about free speech issues.

John and Chris were High School students in Iowa during the Vietnam War. John's sister, Mary, was a Junior High student. To show their opposition to the war, the three students decided to wear black armbands to school. The principals caught wind of the idea, and announced the schools' new policy: Any student caught wearing a black armband would be asked to remove it. If the student refused, he or she would be suspended from school indefinitely until he or she returned without the armband.

Undaunted by their principals' pronouncement, the three came to school the next day wearing their armbands. When they refused to remove them, the three were suspended.

The students sued, claiming that their rights to free speech had been violated. The school officials steadfastly held to their position that the ban was necessary "in order to prevent disturbance of school discipline." The case eventually found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. How should the Court decide this case?

The Court ruled in favor of the students. It ruled that the students do not "shed their constitutional rights . . . at the schoolhouse gate."

"In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. . . . In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate."

One of the reasons the school gave for banning the armbands was because other students, who were opposed to the armbands, might have caused a disturbance. Do you think the school would have the right to ban the armbands if it could show that other students might become violent if they saw them?

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969).
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Matt's friend was running for a school office, and Matt agreed to make a speech in support of his friend in front of the school's 600 students at an assembly. During his speech, Matt referred to his friend, as the Supreme Court later put it, "in terms of an elaborate, graphic, and explicit sexual metaphor."

The next morning, the assistant principal called Matt into her office and asked about the speech. Matt admitted that he had made it. The assistant principal suspended Matt for three days.

Matt appealed his suspension to the School Board, but lost. Claiming that his speech was protected by the First Amendment, Matt sued the School Board. The case eventually found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. How should the Court decide the case?

The Supreme Court ruled that the school had the right to suspend Matt. "The schools, as instruments of the state, may determine that the essential lessons of civil, mature conduct cannot be conveyed in a school that tolerates lewd, indecent, or offensive speech and conduct such as that indulged in by this confused boy. . . . A high school assembly or classroom is no place for a sexually explicit monologue directed towards an unsuspecting audience of teenage students."

Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986).
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Rick, Frank, and Pat were members of the School Board in a quiet town in New York State. One day, the trio attended a conference sponsored by "Parents United." At the conference, someone gave them a list of "objectionable" books that were "improper fare for school students." Upon their return to their sleepy village, Rick, Frank, and Pat were shocked to learn that their High School and Junior High libraries contained some of the "objectionable" books.

After much ado, the Board finally voted to remove most of the objectionable books. The Board breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that it had spared its students from the "educationally unsuitable" books. That relief was short-lived, however, as a number of students sued. The students claimed that the Board's real reason for removing the books was because the books "offended their social, political and moral tastes."

The Judge dismissed the case, because he concluded that the Board "acted not on religious principles but on its conservative educational philosophy."

The students insisted on their right to a trial, and appealed. The case was eventually heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. How should the Court rule?

The Supreme Court ruled that the students were entitled to a trial. "Local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books." Do you think the case would have been decided differently if the Students wanted the School Board to buy new books?

Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982).
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