“Student rights? You mean the lack thereof?” questions one staff member who wishes to remain anonymous.
As soon as you step out of your front door to go to school, you lose many of the protections guaranteed by the Constitution. You can no longer express yourself in many of the ways that would be protected in public.
Several decades ago, a senior in Washington State was suspended for a speech he made to nominate his friend for associated student body vice president. The speech contained a plethora of sexual innuendos and double entendres, but no obscenity. The student making this speech was suspended, which was in turn upheld by the Supreme Court. The ruling of Bethel v Fraser specifically prohibited certain forms of expression that are sexually vulgar. These restrictions apply until the moment you enter your house after returning from school. This contrasts with the belief that citizens are guaranteed unrestricted free speech.
In Morse v Frederick, also known as the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case, one Supreme Court Justice wrote that “the First Amendment does not require schools to tolerate at school events student expression that contributes to the danger of illegal drug use.” Because Frederick advocated drug use, and the actions were taken near a school event, the Supreme Court ruled that the student’s first amendment rights were not violated. However, this lends itself to some ambiguous territory — would a discussion about legalizing marijuana at a school event be considered encouraging illegal drug use?
Student’s lose certain rights simply by being enrolled. For example, M-A restricts student activity both on campus and online. As administrators explained during the assembly, students are held accountable for any internet posts that influence the school environment. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California states that schools can only punish students for “electronic communications that involve sexual harassment, a hate crime, or creation of an intimidating or hostile educational environment.” The law protects anything that isn’t one of the above. This falls mostly in line with M-A’s limits on online expression.
Despite these restrictions, M-A’s staff does it best to support student rights. Just last year, the administration altered the dress code, allowing students more ways to express themselves. J.C. Farr, the new Administrative Vice Principal, states that “everyone is entitled to freedom [of expression],” except when it “infringes upon the rights of others to a safe education.” He urges students to “be thoughtful before you hit ‘submit’” but recognizes that only “if it has an impact [on the campus]… that’s when it becomes an issue.”
Student speech is defined as any expression made by students at school, or a school-sponsored event. Student speech is fundamentally different than pure speech in a few ways. Student speech can be censored if it poses a serious threat of disruption to the school, it would be considered offensive by the standards of the community, or if it would harm the school’s educational mission. A traditional public forum, like a street corner or a public park, is not limited by such restrictions. This article is being published in the M-A Chronicle, which is also considered a public forum. That means that this post could contain material that would be punishable if said out loud at school. Student speech laws are a little bit confusing, but it is important for us to know what is or is not protected by the law.