Speech in Schools

The construction of freedom of speech takes a different shape when considered in the context of a school setting. The applicability of the First Amendment is rendered differently based on types of speech and the context of speech. This is conveyed through the time, place, and manner principle, in which restrictions on freedom of speech are allowed if they are content neutral limitations and serve a legitimate government interest and are reasonable given the context in which they apply.

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier demonstrates the extent of limited speech within schools. This case concerns a school sponsored publication and if the school can justify its censorship of the content within it. In this case, the school had blocked the publishing of two articles related to taboo subjects, divorce and teen pregnancy. The Court had to determine whether this act violated the constitutional right of expression given the circumstances. The publication was school-sponsored and integrated into the curriculum of a Journalism II class. The placement of the articles in this respect warranted considerable discussion among judges as to whether the newspaper functioned as a part of the public forum. Higher levels of protection are afforded to traditional public forums, as opposed to limited public forums. The newspaper’s placement within this hierarchy determined the position of the justices.

They ultimately found that the school’s censorship was justified, as long as this censorship reasonably pertained to “pedagogical concerns.” Schools, therefore, must have an educational purpose in restricting student speech. However, it is unclear what educational goals were in mind in preventing students from publishing articles related to divorce and teen pregnancy. The interface of expression, the school sponsored publication, was subject to lesser protections than other public forums. This ruling was not thoroughly applied to college students. Students have sought expression away from school sponsored publications as a result of this ruling.

This case, along with Tinker v. Des Moines, outlined the reality of how freedom of speech operates in a school setting. The former case protected student expressions while the latter placed restrictions on such expressions at the discretion of the school. In the latter, the justices gave greater deference to the school in determining where the boundaries of speech existed. However, in Tinker v. Des Moines, the court was more critical of the school’s argument in favor of restricting student expression. More than twenty years and a distinctly different makeup of justices separated the two decisions.


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