Case Briefs

Subject: Education
Type: Analytical Essay
Pages: 11
Word count: 2979
Topics: High School, Ethics, Freedom of Speech, Journalism, Justice, Vietnam War

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) 393 U.S. 503

The petitioners, who were public school pupils at Des Moines schools decided to wear black armbands as a way of showing their support for a truce in the Vietnam War. The principals of the school became aware of this and implemented a policy that required students wearing the armbands would be asked to remove them and failure to do so would result in suspension. The petitioners wore the armbands to school and they were suspended. The students, through their parents sued the school for violating their right of expression.  They sought nominal damages and an injunction to prevent the school from disciplining the students. 

The suit was initially filed at the U.S District court. The district court held that the actions of the school were constitutional because they were reasonable to prevent the disturbance of the school discipline. The petitioners appealed the decision in the U. S. Court of appeal for the 8th circuit, which affirmed the decision of the district court by an equally divided court.  The petitioners then appealed to the Supreme Court. 

The issue in this case was whether prohibiting students from wearing armbands as a way of a protest violated the rights of the students as guaranteed by the first amendment. The court, found that the First amendment is applicable to schools and the school must show constitutionally valid reasons for regulating the freedom of speech. The court held that the petitioners were quiet and passive in wearing the armbands and did not infringe on the rights of others. Therefore, their conduct was within the protection of the free speech clause of the First amendment. The first and fourteenth amendments do not permit prohibiting students from expressing their opinion, unless there is sufficient evidence to show that prohibition is necessary to prevent interference with school discipline or the right of other students. Justice Abe Fortas delivered the majority opinion and Justices Warren, Douglas, Brennan, White, Stewart and Marshall concurred. Justice Black, and Harlan dissented. 

The court reasoned that students and teachers do not shed their constitutional rights of freedom of speech or expression when they enter into a school compound. The first amendment rights are available to students and teachers and can only be regulated if special characteristics of the situation or the school environment necessitate their regulation. The regulation of the freedom by the school board in this case was based on the desire to prevent the likely hood of a controversy, which might have resulted even from the silent symbol of wearing an armband. The court noted that in order for the school board to regulate the freedom of speech and expression.  The board has to show that the actions being regulated can substantially interfere with the schools operation or discipline. The wearing of armbands by the petitioners did not cause any disruption and therefore represented a constitutionally protected freedom.

Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986) 478 U.S. 675

Fraser, who was a high school student, delivered a speech nominating a classmate for the students’ association. The speech had several sexual innuendos and prompted disciplinary action from the school administration. The assistant Principe notified Fraser that the school considered his speech a violation of the school disciplinary rule prohibiting the use of obscene language in school. As a result, he would be suspended from school for three days and his name would be removed from the list of graduates who would speak at graduation. Fraser appealed this decision through the school’s grievance procedures, but he was still found in violation of school policies against disruptive behavior. 

The respondent then brought an action in the District court alleging a violation of his first amendment right to freedom of speech. He sought monetary damages and an injunctive relief. The district court found that the school administration had violated the respondent’s first amendment right to freedom of speech and the school disciplinary rule was unconstitutional. The court also found that removing the respondent’s name from the list of speakers was also a violation of the due process clause under the fourteenth amendment. The school then appealed the decision to the US ninth circuit court of appeals, which affirmed the district court’s decision in favor of the respondent. The school district, then asked the Supreme Court to consider the case. 

The issue in this case was whether the first amendment prevents a school from disciplining a student for giving a lewd speech at a school meeting.

The court held that the schools policy did not violate the first amendment as the first amendment permits a school to discipline a student for delivering an indecent or obscene speech at a school meeting.  The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals decision and reinstated the suspension. The court distinguished the current case from Tinker where the actions of the students were considered non-disruptive. The decision limited the scope of the decision in Tinker ruling by prohibiting sexually vulgar expressions. It is an appropriate function of the school to prohibit the use of obscene and vulgar language in public speech. The sexual innuendo in Fraser’s speech was offensive to both the students and the teachers.

As such, the school was within its authority in its disciplinary action upon Fraser because of the speech. The court reasoned that it was constitutional for the school to conclude that the respondent’s speech in this case exceeded the permissible limits The first amendment does not prevent a school form determining that lewd speech such as the respondents would undermine the fundamental values of public education. Burger wrote the majority opinion and White, Brennan, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist and O’Connor concurred while Marshall and Stevens dissented.

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988) 484 U.S. 260

The respondents were former high school students. The students were part of the journalism class that was responsible for the student newspaper. The newspaper was part of the school’s curriculum and was written and edited by the journalism class. The page proofs of the newspaper included two articles with one describing the experiences of students with pregnancy while another dealt with the impact of divorce on students. The school principal objected to the articles when the teacher in charge submitted page proofs. The reason for the objection was that the pregnancy article did not name the students, but their identity could be determined from the text. In addition, the article’s coverage of birth control and sexual activity were inappropriate for some young students. The objection to the divorce article was because it provided the identity of one of the students and the principal was of the opinion that the parents should have been given the opportunity to consent or respond to the allegations. 

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For these reasons, the principal directed that the two articles be withheld from publication. The respondents brought an action in the district court against the petitioners alleging that their first amendment rights were violated by deleting two pages in a certain issues of the student newspaper. They sought a declaration that their first and fourteenth amendment rights had been violated by the actions of the school. They also sought monetary damages and an injection. The district court ruled that the respondent’s rights had not been violated because the school can restrict speech in activities that are important in the schools, education function if such a restriction is based on reasonable and substantial reasons. 

On Appeal to the US court of Appeals for the Eighth district, the court reversed the district court’s decision and held that the newspaper was both part of the school program and a public forum. Because it was a public forum, the contents could not be censored unless the censorship was necessary to prevent material and substantial interference with the school program or with the rights of other students. The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the deletion of the articles from the newspaper violated the students’ rights under the first amendment.

The court in a 5-3 ruling overturned the court of appeals decision held that a speech that can reasonably be seen to have the schools printing can be regulated if the school has legitimate educational concerns in regulating the speech. The court reasoned that the principal had the authority to censor the articles because the newspaper was not intended to be a public forum. School officials do not violate the first amendment right when they regulate student activities in activities sponsored by the school if the activities are reasonably related to educational issues. Justice White wrote the majority decision and was joined by Rehnquist, Stevens, O’Connor and Scalia. Justice Brennan, Marshall and Blackmun dissented.

This decision overrode the precedent set in Tinker, which allowed censorship of speech only if the speech violated the rights of other students or threatened to cause disruption. The court noted that this case was different from Tinker in that while tinker addressed the question of whether the first amendment requires a school to tolerate certain student speeches, the current case addressed the question of whether the first amendment requires a school to promote particular speeches by the students. 

Morse v. Frederick (2007) 551 U.S. 393

 Frederick, who was a senior high school student, unfolded a banner saying “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” at an Olympic torch pass. Frederick had attended the event as part of a school-supervised activity. The school principal instructed Frederick to put away the banner, as she was concerned, it could be misinterpreted as advocating drug activity. Frederick did not comply and e principal took the banner from him. He was subsequently suspended from school for violating the schools policy that prohibited students from advocating the use of drugs. Frederick appealed the disciplinary decision, but the school board upheld it. 

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He then brought an action in the district court alleging that the suspension violated his right to the freedom of speech. He sought a declaration that his rights had been violated, an injunctive relief as well as monetary damages. The court reasoned that the issues in the current case fell within the scope of the Bethel case as opposed to the Tinker case. As such, his rights were not being violated because the principal had reasonably interpreted the banner as violating the schools policy on drugs. However, the US Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit reversed the decision of the district court. 

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the school principal violated the free speech clause under the first amendment by limiting speech at a school-supervised event if the speech is construed as promoting the use of drugs. The court held that the school principal in this case did not violate Frederick’s first amendment right to free speech by confiscating the banner and suspending Frederick. This is because school officials might take the necessary steps to safeguard those entrusted to them from speech that can be seen as promoting the use of illegal drugs. 

The court reasoned that those who viewed the banner would interpret it as advocating for illegal drug use, which violated the schools policy. In Tinker, the court stated that students and teachers do not shed their constitutional rights when they enter into a school compound. It held that the actions of the student’s in wearing armbands were protected speech as it was political speech. Freedom of political speech is at the heart of the first amendment and such speech can only be restricted if it disrupts the learning process. 

On the contrary, the court in Bethel noted that a student’s rights do not necessarily coexist with the rights of adults. Hazelwood noted that the rights of the students are applied in light of the characteristics of the school environment. In the current case, it is noteworthy that the constitution provides lesser protection to some of the students’ speeches at school supervised events. The message on the banner was seen as promoting illegal drug use and the school had a compelling interest in punishing speech that was seen as promoting the use of drugs. The school could therefore safeguard the interest of the other students without the fear of violating the first amendment right to free speech. Justice Roberts wrote the majority decision and was joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito. Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer dissented.

Guiles v. Marineau (2006) 461 F.3d 320

The plaintiff in this case was a high school student who started wearing a T-shirt that was critical of the US president to school. The plaintiffs T-shirt used harsh rhetoric and imagery to attack the president’s character and disagree with his policies. The plaintiff wore the T-shirt to school at least once a week. The message on the T-shirt did not evoke discussion from the other students and did not cause disruptions within the school. One student had complained about the T-shirt but was told that the T-shirt constituted political speech, which was protected by the first amendment. The plaintiff was only told to hide the messages on the T-shirt when one parent complained. This was in line with the schools policy, which prohibited any aspects of a student that could create a hazard to the health and safety of self or others.  

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The issue was whether a school could discipline or require a student to obscure images relating to drugs and alcohol. The court held that requiring student t obscure images of drugs and alcohol on a T-shirt that criticized the president was a violation of the first and fourteenth amendments. The court noted that although the T-shirt had images of drugs and alcohol, it was protected speech.

The court considered the facts of the case in view of prior standards set in Tinker, Fraser and Hazelwood. Hazelwood permitted schools to regulate freedom of speech if the regulation related to the legitimate educational concerns of the school. The court had allowed the school to regulate the content of the newspaper because it was sponsored by the school and it was not student’s speech.  This standard only applies when the speech is sponsored or would appear as being sponsored by the school. Guiles T-shirt was not sponsored by the school and therefore this standard could not be applied in this case. 

Tinker held that a student is free to express his opinion, even on controversial issues if this expression is done in a way that does not substantially affect the disciplinary requirements of the school or the rights of others. According to this standard, requiring a student to obscure images on his T-shirt violated his right to free speech because the T-shirt did not disrupt the school or infringe on the rights of others. Fraser allowed schools to censor content that was offensive or indecent. This is an exception to the rule set in Tinker. The court noted that Guiles T-shirt was not offensive or indecent and thus fell under the protection of free speech.

The court reasoned that the rights of the student were violated by asking him to obscure the images because they were an important part of the political message contained in the T-shirt. Requiring him to obscure the images can only be justified if it can cause a substantial disruption. Guiles had worn the T-shirt to school on several occasions and it had not caused disruption, therefore, the school did not have grounds to require him to obscure the images. 

Jacobs v. Clark County School District (2005) 373 F.Supp.2d 1162

The county school district put in a regulation that required a standard dress code for all students in order to promote student achievement and enhance a positive school environment. This regulation prohibited students from displaying any messages on their uniform except the school logo. Jacobs violated this regulation by wearing a printed T-shirt that depicted her religious beliefs. She was suspended from school for these violations. Jacobs brought an action in the district court, contending that the standard uniform requirement violated her first amendment right to free speech. The court held that the regulations did not violate the student’s freedom of speech. 

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The court of appeal affirmed the district court’s decision. The issues before the Supreme Court were whether the students’ choice of what to wear to school constituted expressions that could be considered speech within the provisions of the first amendment. The court held that the standard in Tinker did not apply to this case because the policies requiring students to wear uniform were content and viewpoint neutral. The first amendment protection of expression addresses only speech. However, the court has found that conduct when accompanied by elements of expression can also enjoy the protection.

In deciding, whether a certain conduct has sufficient elements to enjoy protection under the first amendment, it is important to inquire into the intent to convey a particular message and whether there is a likelihood of the message being understood by those who saw it. The nature of the activities in question and the factual context of the situation are relevant in determining whether conduct mounts to speech. The court noted that student attire might constitute speech and qualify for protection under the first amendment. Clothing may constitute speech when it bears print language. After determining that a student’s attire might constitute speech that is protected by the first amendment, the court then turned to determine whether the students’ attire in this case possessed sufficient elements to enjoy the protection of the fat amendment.

The court found that the students’ attire implicated the First amendment rights, and the court then was to consider the principals that should govern the consideration of the constitutionality of the laws requiring students to wear the standard uniform. The court reasoned that although students do not shed their constitutional rights when they enter into a school compound, these rights do not automatically co-exist with the right of adults in other settings. The school does not need to tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational function.

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  1. Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986) 478 U.S. 675
  2. Guiles v. Marineau (2006) 461 F.3d 320
  3. Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988) 484 U.S. 260
  4. Jacobs v. Clark County School District (2005) 373 F.Supp.2d 1162
  5. Morse v. Frederick (2007) 551 U.S. 393
  6. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) 393 U.S. 503
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