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Freedom of speech should extend to high school

We need free speech in high schools today. If we do not familiarize students with their rights in high school, they will matriculate to college with the misguided expectation of a sheltered and monotonous college education. In the past, high school students left for school early in the morning and were sequestered for a majority of the day, with little or no communication with their parents or guardians. Today, however, with the wide use of smartphones and other electronic devices, students practically have their parents in their pockets throughout the entire day. While we live in a ubiquitously connected world where parents are in constant contact with their kids, high schools still follow the antiquated in loco parentis doctrine. This Latin phrase, meaning “in the place of a parent,” stands for a principle that allows high schools to supersede parents when their kids are at school. Students and parents will often fight to draw a line when it comes to school authority, particularly when administrators’ views come into conflict with the concerns of students or their parents about what they can read, write, or say.

One major instance of parents and their children refusing to accept administrative rule led to the United States Supreme Court case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1948). In 1942, the West Virginia Board of Education adopted a resolution that required all students to salute the flag as part of their public school education. Two students, adherents of the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith, refused to salute the flag at their elementary school because it contradicted their religious principles forbidding idolatry. They were expelled. Their parents were outraged; how could a school administration know what was best for their children? They challenged their children’s expulsion all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the children.

Another landmark case regarding in loco parentis and censorship was Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969). In this case, two students protesting the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands were suspended for wearing them to school. The administration was unabashedly biased in this case, tolerating a variety of other radical political groups, but penalizing these students’ expression. Justice Abraham Fortas, writing for the Supreme Court, summarized: “The record shows that students in some of the schools wore buttons relating to national political campaigns, and some even wore the Iron Cross, traditionally a symbol of Nazism.” The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students, but with a significant restriction: Speech can indeed be restricted if it causes a “substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others.”

While Tinker ruled in favor of the students with a small caveat, Bethel v. Fraser (1986) and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988) both ruled in favor of the administration and forever altered the landscape of high school students’ expressive rights. The rulings in both cases were primarily supported by the restriction in Tinker, further displaying why one small speech restriction can evolve into a landslide of oppressive rulings. In Fraser, a student promoted a fellow student-government candidate at a student assembly by stating, “he’s firm in his pants, he’s firm in his shirt, his character is firm — but most . . . of all, his belief in you, the students of Bethel, is firm.” He was subsequently suspended. This was not his only sexually-tinted remark, but nevertheless his insinuations were far from explicit material. The school’s administration stated that his speech was “inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order,” and the Supreme Court ruled against the student.

Hazelwood is an even more outrageous case. There, a high school newspaper wanted to publish an article about teenage pregnancy, profiling two students who shared their experiences. Not only did the school administrators refuse to publish the article, they took the case all the way to the Supreme Court and won. The administration’s fear was that “the article’s references to sexual activity and birth control were inappropriate for some of the younger students.” They also cited the above quote from Fraser regarding “shared values” to support their claim.

Ironically, this is one of the many reasons why we have the freedom of speech in the first place — to challenge traditional societal values. When defending free speech on college campuses, we often point out that colleges are where students should confront new ideas. But why not in high school? With today’s availability of technology, many high school students are already exposed to controversial or explicit material. Censorship, especially in high school, is antiquated.

It’s considered reasonable for a high school administration to have some regulatory measures to maintain an orderly educational environment. However, the power to censor at will allows administrators to decide which political viewpoints and causes their students can espouse. This power cannot be underestimated, as it is one of the most powerful influences on our future. We should place more of this power among the students themselves, as it’s their future we are influencing.

I was extremely lucky in that I attended a high school that was far from draconian in regard to political expression. I was encouraged to express my views in class and discuss pertinent societal issues with my classmates. But for students who attend a high school with an overzealous administrator, they may fear that espousing their views will lead to punishment by the administration. In a country where we pride ourselves on our ability to do and say as we please as long as we are not harming anyone else, it is astonishing how little these freedoms are protected at the high school level. If we fail to introduce students to free speech in high school, their unfamiliarity with their rights may manifest later in calls for counterproductive censorship.

Lachlan Mersky is a FIRE summer intern and rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania.

Educators interested in exploring free speech education in the classroom should check out FIRE's First Amendment textbook, "First Things First: A Modern Coursebook on Free Speech Fundamentals."

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