Good Censorship In High School Essay Example

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Students, Education, School, Criminal Justice, Court, Crime, Expression, Speech

Pages: 5

Words: 1375

Published: 2020/11/28

It is a well-known fact of legal life in America that the First Amendment, among other protections, guarantees the right of the people to engage in free expression. Over the years, the United States Supreme Court (Court) has held this right to include expression through speech, writing, art, music, relationships, and political advocacy. In short, the First Amendment underlies the viability of the American democratic system itself.
But what does this all mean to children and especially teenagers? While few would complain when parents prohibit their children from engaging in the same free expression that they themselves enjoy; should schools, for example, be allowed to or given equal deference to discipline students for exercising their rights to freely express themselves? In three landmark cases, the Court was confronted with similar questions as the applied to public schools. Considering the history of Supreme Court First Amendment jurisprudence, the Court’s thinking, which began as being quite expansive, increasingly did not provide much protection for children and students’ rights of free expression. Moreover, the set a precedent that provides public school administrators with wide latitude to control or censor student expression in the name of school or educational programming.

Three Cases

Tinkler v. Des Moines Independent Community School District was one of the first cases in which the Court began to formulate its standards for the right to free expression in schools. In Tinkler, a group of students, including Tinkler, decided to express their opposition to the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands. The school leadership, fearing that it would lead to distraction and disruption in the school, disapproved of the student expression and told the group to stop wearing the armbands in school. When they refused, the school suspended them. The students then sued the school, claiming that by prohibiting students from wearing the armbands, the school was violating the First Amendment rights. The question the Court was asked to address was whether wearing an armband was free expression under the First Amendment; and if it was free expression was it a distraction large enough to merit censorship. In an opinion written by Justice Abe Fortas, the Court held that wearing an armband is a symbolic expression that closely resembles “pure speech.” Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503, 510 (1969). Accordingly, it falls under the protection of the First Amendment. In addition, the Court held that wearing the armband was not so disruptive that it should be censored.
Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser expressed a surprising retreat from the Court’s thinking in Tinkler and marked the first case illustrating the Court’s tendency to side with the schools in finding the First Amendment is limited in the scope of its protection of student expression. The Bethel, high school student Michael Fraser gave a speech to the school in which he nominated his friend and classmate for a position in the student government. In making the speech, Fraser made a number of sexual references in his description of his classmate that the school leadership found to be inappropriate and therefore suspended him. Fraser then sued the school claiming violation of his First Amendment rights to free expression. The question before the Court was whether the First Amendment allowed a school to punish a student for making a speech to the student body that it found to be inappropriate and offensive. In an opinion written by Chief Justice Warren Burger, the Court held that Fraser’s First Amendment rights were not violated. Moreover, the Court held that the Constitution does not prevent a public school from punishing students for speech that is considered inappropriate or vulgar by school officials. Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675, 676 (1986).
Lastly, in the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier case, the Court further refined its thinking on just how far a school can go in controlling student speech. In Hazelwood, one of the requirements of Hazelwood East High School’s journalism class was for students to prepare stories for the school’s student edited, teacher supervised newspaper. Prior to publishing, the paper was reviewed by the school’s principal. Upon review of the spring edition of the paper, the principal objected to two articles which he thought was inappropriate for younger students and likely to cause disruption within the school. Accordingly, he ordered that the articles be removed from the paper without first speaking to the newspaper’s teacher supervisor or giving notice to the student authors. The student authors then filed a claim against the principal and the school alleging that the removal of the articles violated the First Amendment. The Court was asked to determine if the First Amendment allowed the school to remove the articles from the official school newspaper. In a five to three decision written by Justice Byron White, the Court held that the First Amendment allows a school to remove articles it feels are inappropriate from the school newspaper. Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 261 (1988).


In light of the somewhat inconsistent Court’s rulings between Tinkler, Bethel and Hazelwood, the question remains, can a school control its students’ right to free expression? The clear answer is: yes, except for political expression. Under Tinkler, the Court explained that while students because of their youth do not possess the same rights of expression as adults, schools hold an important place in society for teaching the young about citizenship, democracy and constitutional freedoms. According to the Court, “state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism.” Tinkler, 393 U.S. 503, 512 (1969). Accordingly, school leadership does have an interest in controlling student expression for administrative and educational goals, that control requires a substantial justification. Moreover, as mentioned, the Court equated the armbands to the students actually speaking out against the war. Consequently, this amounted to political speech. Tinkler, 393 U.S. 503, 508 (1969). Under the Court’s analysis, protection of political speech is vitally important to the continuing development the nation therefore any actions that censor it must be intimately scrutinized. As a result, when weighing the importance of schools as a venue for teaching citizenship and the necessity of protecting political speech with the school’s argument that the armbands where disruptive, the Court found in favor of student expression. . Tinkler, 393 U.S. 503, 511 (1969).
Bethel, on the other hand, had nothing to do with political expression. To be sure, the Court found Fraser’s speech to be lewd and vulgar with little or no expression of a personal political belief. Accordingly, the school had more authority to control or censor it. Extending the Court’s findings in Tinkler, that: (1) students don’t possess the same rights to expression as adults, and (2) schools have a legitimate interest in controlling student speech where it is deemed to be inappropriate, the Court found the school’s actions outweighed Fraser’s limited rights of expression. As the Court saw it, allowing students to give speeches like Fraser’s would harm its fundamental mission. According to the Court, “public education must prepare pupils for citizenship in the Republic.” Bethel School District, 478 U.S. 675, 682 (1986). Lastly, unlike in Tinkler, the Court agreed with the school’s argument that Fraser’s speech was disruptive and needed to be controlled to maintain student body orderliness.
In Hazelwood, the Court extended its Bethel mandate to a wide range of student and school activities that in essence, gave schools broad authority to censor student speech. To be sure, under Hazelwood, as long as a school could show that the student speech: (1) was not political, (2) involved school support or might be mistakenly interpreted as the school’s own expression; and (3) violated or opposed a “pedagogical concern” or educational purpose, they could censor any expression the carried the school’s name or sponsorship including school newspapers, classroom curriculum, and official schools activities. In addition, the Court found that so long as the activity was school sponsored, the speech did not have to cause a disruption, as required by Tinkler, in order to be censored as long as the censoring action were “reasonably related to an educational purpose.” Hazelwood School District, 484 U.S. 260, 274 (1988).


I think the Court’s ruling in Tinkler is the best solution to the question of student speech. It not only recognizes that students have a right to express themselves but also gives school’s the power to control express so long as they have a legitimate and substantial justification. There is no doubt that not all speech should be protected, and the Court has done a good job of defining what speech should not be protected such as obscene speech and what requirements are necessary to protect one’s expression outside of schools. I think Tinkler provided a reasonable application of those precedents to the school environment without being disrespectful to the school’s interests in education, orderliness in schools and school administration.

Works Cited

Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986). Supreme Court. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.
Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988). Supreme Court. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.
Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969). Supreme Court. Web. Feb. 2015.

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