Opinions & Commentaries

Petitioners, three public school pupils in Des Moines, Iowa, were suspended from school for wearing black armbands to protest the Government's policy in Vietnam. They sought nominal damages and an injunction against a regulation that the respondents had promulgated banning the wearing of armbands. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that the regulation was within the Board's power, despite the absence of any finding of substantial interference with the conduct of school activities. The Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, affirmed by an equally divided court. Held: 1. In wearing armbands, the petitioners were quiet and passive. They were not disruptive, and did not impinge upon the rights of others. In these circumstances, their conduct was within the protection of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth. Pp. 505-506. 2. First Amendment rights are available to teachers and students, subject to application in light of the special characteristics of the school environment. Pp. 506-507. 3. A prohibition against expression of opinion, without any evidence that the rule is necessary to avoid substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others, is not permissible under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 507-514. 383 F.2d 988, reversed and remanded.

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457 U.S. 853 (1982) BOARD OF EDUCATION, ISLAND TREES UNION FREE SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 26, ET AL. v. PICO, BY HIS NEXT FRIEND PICO, ET AL.   No. 80-2043. Supreme Court of United States.   Argued March 2, 1982. Decided June 25, 1982. CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT*855 George W. Lipp, Jr., argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs was David S. J. Rubin. Alan H. Levine argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Steven R. Shapiro, Burt Neuborne, Alan Azzara, Bruce J. Ennis, Jr., and […]

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We granted certiorari to decide whether the First Amendment prevents a school district from disciplining a high school student for giving a lewd speech at a school assembly.

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Respondents, former high school students who were staff members of the school's newspaper, filed suit in Federal District Court against petitioners, the school district and school officials, alleging that respondents' First Amendment rights were violated by the deletion from a certain issue of the paper of two pages that included an article describing school students' experiences with pregnancy and another article discussing the impact of divorce on students at the school. The newspaper was written and edited by a journalism class, as part of the school's curriculum. Pursuant to the school's practice, the teacher in charge of the paper submitted page proofs to the school's principal, who objected to the pregnancy story because the pregnant students, although not named, might be identified from the text, and because he believed that the article's references to sexual activity and birth control were inappropriate for some of the younger students. The principal objected to the divorce article because the page proofs he was furnished identified by name (deleted by the teacher from the final version) a student who complained of her father's conduct, and the principal believed that the student's parents should have been given an opportunity to respond to the remarks or to consent to their publication. Believing that there was no time to make necessary changes in the articles if the paper was to be issued before the end of the school year, the principal directed that the pages on which they appeared be withheld from publication even though other, unobjectionable articles were included on such pages.

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About 500 students attend the Milford Central School (Milford, N.Y.), which houses grades K-12. The Child Evangelism Fellowship, a non-sectarian, Christian missionary organization, sponsors some 4,400 Good News clubs in the United States for children ages 6 to 12. The 'tender age' of the children in question is central to the Court's analysis of the case. Rev. Stephen Fournier and his wife lead the Good News Club of Milford; it has approximately 25 members. New York state allows local school boards to adopt their own regulations for community use of school property. The Milford school district's policy is stated in a handbook: (1) School facilities "may be used by district residents for holding social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainment events and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community …" (2) "School premises shall not be used by any individual or organization for religious purposes." In 1996 the Good News Club of Milford, for reasons not relevant to the case, seeks a new place in which to conduct its meetings. It submits a 'District Use of Facilities Request' asking to use the school as a meeting place. An interim superintendent refuses access, finding that the Good News Club's meetings would be "the equivalent of religious worship … rather than the expression of religious views or values on a secular subject." After an attorney raises the issue that denial of access to the Good News Club while access is allowed to the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and the 4-H Club may violate the club's rights, school official solicit additional information about the meetings of the club, reconsider the request for facility access, and again deny access to the club. Both parties agreed that the school district created a limited public forum by issuing its community use policy for school facilities. A government-operated limited public forum is not required to and does not allow individuals to engage in all types of speech. Under Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995), content-based discrimination is allowed in a limited public forum so long as the restricted speech falls outside the purpose of the limited forum. Viewpoint-based discrimination, however, is impermissible if the speech in question falls within the purpose of the limited forum. Thus, the government may restrict speech within the limited public forum if the restriction is not a viewpoint-based limitation and if the restriction is reasonable in light of the forum's purpose. The parties disagree, however, about whether club access would be a government endorsement of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause. The clause prohibits government speech endorsing religion while private speech in support of religion is protected by the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses. With respect to equal access to limited public forums for religious groups, the Supreme Court typically finds no violation of the Establishment Clause where there is little concern that the public would perceive an endorsement of religion by the government entity and where any benefit to religion is merely incidental. In 1997 the Good News Club files in federal district court and offers arguments related to freedom of speech, equal protection and religious freedom under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The district court holds in summary judgment for the Milford Central School. In 2000 Hearing an appeal limited to the First Amendment issue claim, the 2nd Circuit panel (2-1) affirms the district court's dismissal of the free speech claim. The appellate court finds that the school was not discriminating between viewpoints but rather had excluded the club because the content of its meetings consisted of "religious instruction and prayer" — a permissible viewpoint-neutral reason. The Supreme Court grants the petition for cert. on October 10.

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April 14, 2017

Public school students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). Such rights must, however, be considered in the context of “the special characteristics of the school environment.” This means that while public school students possess free speech rights at school, school officials can regulate speech more as educators than governments can as sovereign.

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