Know Your Rights: Freedom of Expression In the Classroom

Getting an education isn't just about books and grades - students are also learning what to expect outside of the classroom. 

In order to really prepare for life outside the halls of our schools, everyone should know their rights. The Bill of Rights guarantees that the government cannot deprive people of certain fundamental rights including the right to freedom of religion, free speech, and the due process of law. Many federal and state laws guarantee additional rights, too. 

Let this page serve as a reminder that the Bill of Rights applies to everyone, including students.

Information by way of the ACLU Nationwide Department of Public Education.

1. What does "Freedom of Expression" mean?

Q.What does "Freedom of Expression" mean?
A.

The First Amendment guarantees the right to free expression and free association, which means that the government does not have the right to forbid students from saying what they like and writing what they like. Students have the right to form clubs and organizations and take part in demonstrations and rallies. 

2. Do I have the right to express my opinions and beliefs in school?

Q.Do I have the right to express my opinions and beliefs in school?
A.

Yes. In 1969 in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District the Supreme Court held that students in public schools - which are run by the government - do not leave their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse doors. This means that students can express their opinions orally and in writing such as a leaflet, or on buttons, armbands or t-shirts. 

Students have a constitutional right to express their opinions as long as they do so in a way that doesn't "materially and substantially" disrupt classes or other school activities. If students hold a protest on the school steps and block the entrance to the building, school officials may be able to stop them.

Keep in mind: School officials may not censor only one side of a controversy. If they permit an article in the official school paper that says that premarital sex is bad, they may not censor an article that says premarital sex is appropriate. 

3. What are we allowed to say in the school paper?

Q.What are we allowed to say in the school paper?
A.

Keep in mind: Private schools have more leeway to set their own rules on free expression than public schools do.

It depends on whether the school is paying for producing the paper. If it is a completely student-run paper that students want to hand out in school, the school may not censor what they say or stop students from handing it out as long as the paper is not "indecent" and the student(s) do not "materially and substantially" disrupt school activities. (The school may place reasonable limits on the "time, place or manner" of handing it out.) The same rule applies to leaflets or buttons that may have created and paid for.

In the official school paper, however, students may have a problem publishing an article that discusses important but controversial issues like sex education, condom distribution, or drug abuse. That's because of a 1988 Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. It said public school administrators can censor student speech in official school publications or activities -- like a school play, art exhibit, newspaper or yearbook -- if the officials think students are saying something "inappropriate" or "harmful" even if it is not vulgar and does not disrupt. 

Some states -- including Colorado, California, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts -- have "High School Free Expression" laws that give students more free speech rights than the Constitution requires. 

4. Can we slam really bad teachers in the school paper?

Q.Can we slam really bad teachers in the school paper?
A.

In a student's own publication, it's their right to criticize how the people who run their school do their jobs. But they cannot print something about a teacher that is knowingly false or something that makes the teacher/faculty look bad. That could be considered libel.

5. Is my school allowed to have a dress code?

Q.Is my school allowed to have a dress code?
A.

It depends. In some states, students can wear their hair any way they want as long as it's not a safety hazard (like if your hair is very long, you have to tie it back during a science experiment). Courts in other states allow school hair codes and where hair codes are permitted, so are dress codes. 

If you think your school's dress codes and hair codes are unfair and you are wondering what you can do, email southdakota@aclu.org with the details of your situation. 

6. Do I have to say the pledge of allegiance?

Q.Do I have to say the pledge of allegiance?
A.

No. The Supreme Court has held that it is just as much a violation of First Amendment rights for the government to make a student say something they don't want to say as it is for the government to prevent them from saying what they do want to say.

Simply put: Every student has a right to remain silently seated during the pledge.

7. Can the school library refuse to stock certain books?

Q.Can the school library refuse to stock certain books?
A.

This is a very complicated issue. Schools certainly have the right to pick the books they think have the greatest value for their students and to reject those that they believe have little value. On the other hand, if the school refuses to stock a book for "narrowly partisan or political," reasons - i.e., they just don't agree with the authors' viewpoints - that's censorship and censorship is unconstitutional. In a 1982 case called Island Trees v. Pico, the Supreme Court ruled that school boards can't remove books from a school library just because they don't agree with their content. But in many communities around the country, school administrators and librarians are under heavy pressure from religious and other groups to censor what we read and study.

If you believe that your school is censoring books because of their viewpoints, you, your teachers and the school librarian can challenge book censorship at your school or in court. The freedom to read is the freedom to think - and that's totally worth fighting for!

Email southdaktoa@aclu.org with the details of your situation if you would like to learn more about what your options are.