Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether a university that expelled a student for reprinting an offensive cartoon and a profane article headline in a campus newspaper violated the 1st Amendment.


The Supreme Court reversed the Eighth Circuit decision to uphold the student’s expulsion. The Court held that ideas distastefully expressed are not unprotected, that the cartoon was not legally obscene, and that the student’s expulsion was based on content, and not on a valid time, place, and manner restriction.

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A graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism published the headline “Motherfucker Acquitted” and reprinted a cartoon depicting policemen raping the Statue of Liberty and Goddess of Justice with the caption “With Liberty and Justice for All” in the Free Press Underground, a newspaper that had been sold on the campus for four years. The student was found to have violated the General Standards of Student Conduct that prohibited “indecent conduct or speech.” The student was expelled. The trial court found the publication legally obscene, and so without constitutional protection, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

Importance of Case

The Court reaffirmed the Healy v. James (1972) application of the 1st Amendment to public universities and refused to broaden what is considered legally obscene. The Supreme Court, quoting Healy stated, “state colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the 1st Amendment.” In reaching this result, the Court aptly stated: “mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’”

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