Though the government has more authority to regulate speech in schools, public school students do have some right to freedom of speech. Generally, students have the right to protest, speak out, and wear expressive clothing. But there are some limits.

The First Amendment Applies to Student Political Speech

In 1969, the Supreme Court decided Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a case involving three students suspended for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam war. In a landmark decision, the Court held that the First Amendment protected their expression, famously noting that students do not “shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Tinker held that the First Amendment protects student speech unless it would substantially interfere with the operation of the school or invade the rights of others. Particularly when it comes to political speech, school officials must have a legitimate fear of disruption to prohibit student expression. In the words of the Tinker Court, “undifferentiated fear or apprehension” is not enough.

The Supreme Court has since carved out exceptions to Tinker’s broad rule. Schools may permissibly discipline profane or vulgar speech by students. Schools may also generally regulate speech that is sponsored by the school itself. For instance, a school may regulate the content of a school-run newspaper, if the school has a valid educational reason for doing so. And schools may also prohibit student speech that advocates illegal drug use.

Are student dress codes covered by the First Amendment?

Student dress codes might also raise First Amendment issues. The Supreme Court has held that free speech applies to nonverbal conduct that intends to communicate a message, and that would likely be understood by observers. This concept is known as “expressive conduct,” and the Supreme Court has applied it to clothing before. Because students often seek to express themselves through the clothes they wear—as was the case in Tinker—school dress codes can implicate the First Amendment.

Even so, schools do have leeway to regulate student attire. Schools may restrict offensive or vulgar messages through dress codes. They can also restrict attire that will cause a substantial disruption within the school. These determinations must be made on a case-by-case basis, and often require consultation with an Ohio free speech lawyer.

Emerging Issues in Student Free Speech

In the digital age, a host of new issues regarding student speech remain unsettled. Most obviously, courts are divided over whether and how much schools may discipline students for their social media speech or in other online forums. Questions arise whether schools may discipline students for their speech over the internet, even if made outside of school hours. Courts have come down on both sides of the issue. Students who have been disciplined for their speech online should talk to an Ohio free speech lawyer to understand whether their rights have been violated.

Ohio Free Speech Lawyers

When freedom of speech collides with the public school setting, controversy often follows. Although courts have set down some markers, this area of law continues to develop, especially for online student speech. If you believe your free speech rights have been violated in a public school or on a public college campus, contact the Ohio free speech lawyers at Bolek Besser Glesius for a free consultation.