New Florida State Law Protects First Amendment Rights in Schools

June 9, 2010

The erosion of students’ and faculty members’ rights under the First Amendment is not something that is unique to colleges and universities. Over the years, we have seen countless instances in which students and teachers in high schools and lower levels of education have had their freedom of speech, freedom of association, and other core liberties violated. While FIRE’s mission is confined for many reasons to the world of higher education, FIRE monitors free speech developments at primary and secondary schools. Why? Not only have the rationales used to justify K-12 censorship often bled improperly into the higher education setting (as documented in FIRE’s legal scholarship), but also these circumstances have had the damaging effect of miseducating students about their fundamental constitutional rights. This situation does immeasurable harm to students’ understanding of their free speech rights as they go forward into their college careers, as FIRE knows all too well.

It is therefore important that the First Amendment receives adequate protection at the high school level and at lower levels of education, and we are always happy to learn that others are concerned about this issue. One such indication is the Florida state legislature’s decision to pass a law defending the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment in the state’s K-12 public schools, which Governor Charlie Crist signed last week.

As the Student Press Law Center reports, the law "is meant to prevent school districts from restricting the First Amendment rights of school employees or students without their consent." It creates a new section of the Florida Statutes, Section 1003.4505, which reads in its entirety:

Protection of school speech.—District school boards, administrative personnel, and instructional personnel are prohibited from taking affirmative action, including, but not limited to, the entry into any agreement, that infringes or waives the rights or freedoms afforded to instructional personnel, school staff, or students by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, in the absence of the express written consent of any individual whose constitutional rights would be impacted by such infringement or waiver. [PDF]

While FIRE does not endorse legislation, we do take note when government leaders and officials act to uphold freedom of speech. This law demonstrates recognition on the part of the Florida legislature and Governor Crist that students’ and teachers’ free speech rights are worthy of protection and that these rights should be upheld in the educational setting. As FIRE often acknowledges, our work is made successful by the fact that the number of citizens actually in favor of government censorship is very small after all. Seeing such a bill passed into law by the people’s elected representatives serves as another reminder that fighting censorship is widely supported.