Important Court Cases

Freedom of Expression

Blackwell v. Issaquena County Board of Education (5th Cir. 1966) — Disruptive Protests & Demonstrations

  • Students at an all–black high school distributed   “freedom buttons” and in doing so caused a disturbance and disruption.
  • Students were pinning each other in the hallways during class time. Students were pinned without asking for a pin and without group affiliation.
  • In the days to follow, 300 students were suspended for 20 days.
  • The 5th circuit court ruled in favor of the school  because the demonstration was viewed as:
    • Interfering with the purpose of public school
    • Student rights to safety and privacy were violated
    • Cited in the Tinker Case

Burnside v. Byars (5th Cir, 1966) Protests & Demonstrations

  • Similar set of circumstances as Blackwell except the demonstration did not disrupt the environment.
  • As cited in the Tinker case: The court referred to but expressly declined to follow the Fifth Circuit’s holding in a similar case that the wearing of symbols like the armbands cannot be prohibited unless it “materially and substantially interfere[s] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” Burnside v. Byars, 363 F.2d 744, 749 (1966).

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District  (1969)– Peaceful Protests & Demonstrations

  • In protest of the Vietnam War, Mary Beth Tinker, John Tinker, and Christopher Eckhardt wore black arm bands to school. 
  • Their action violated a newly adopted board policy that gave the school the authority to ask for the removal of an arm band.
  • The students refused to remove the arm bands and were sent home.
  • The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students’ right to protest.
  • The first Supreme Court ruling protecting a student’s right to free expression.
  • A student has the right to express a personal view as long as it does not create a material or substantial disruption to the educational process.
  • Most famous quote: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” – Justice Abe Fortas  

Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986) — Student Speech, Public Forum, & the “lewd, indecent and offensive”  

  • Mathew Fraser presented a speech to the student body nominating a classmate for office.
  • Throughout the speech, Fraser’s used  sexual innuendoes. The speech called enough attention to warrant disciplinary action.
  • The speech contained and no profanity or obscenity.
  • School administration viewed the speech in violation of a school policy against disruptive behavior.
  • The 9th District ruled in Fraser’s favor citing the school district failed to prove the speech had a disruptive effect on the educational process. Also rejected the idea that a school should protect minors from “lewd” speech. (th District used the Tinker ruling to justify its opinion. 
  • The Supreme Court reversed the decision making it clear that a public school is a place to prepare young people for the future. Therefore the role of a school is to teach the value of civil conduct and effective public discourse.  
  • Supreme Courts View of appl Tinker: “Obscene, vulgar, lewd, and offensively lewd”, not the same as an arm band worn in political  protest.

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlemier (1987) — School-Sponsonsored Student Publications and Censorship

  • Student newspaper as part of a journalism class was censored by the school principal.
  • The articles censored presented stories on teen pregnancy and divorce.
  • Principal believed the anonymity of the persons in the story were at risk of discovery. The principal believed the content was inappropriate for younger students.
  • The Supreme Court ruled: “A school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission, even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school.”
  • A journalism class is not considered an open forum. An open forum requires that the space and equipment be available for use by the general public. Policies regarding open and closed forum must be clear.
  • On the role of an institution of learning: “Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”  

Bystrom v. Findley High School Independent School District No. 14 (8th Cir. 1987) –Nonschool-Sponsored Publications and Censorship

  • Underground newspaper distributed on school grounds.
  • Students were sanctioned for distrusting what school officials believed was indecent and vulgar.
  • 8th District Court sided with the school districts policies which clearly stated that the publication of indecent and vulgar material is prohibited.

Burch v. Barker (9th Cir. 1988) — Nonschool-Sponsored Publications and Censorship

  • Students presented an underground newspaper to the student population lampooning school policies. There was no language that was obscene , lewd, or religious.
  • Court found school policies to be vague and unlimited in scope. There was no proof of a material or substantial disruption.

Layshock v. Hermitage School District (3 Cir. 2010) — Online Student Speech

  • Student created an online parody of the principal
  • The student was given a 10-day suspension for the online material.
  • Court sided with student and finding the 10-day punishment unconstitutional.
  • The site was created of f school grounds and the court found no evidence of disruption.

Snyder v. Blue Mountain School District (3 Cir. 2010) — Online Student Speech

  • Similar circumstance with the exception that the parody contained vulgar material. 
  • Court sided with school due to the offensive nature of the content of the parody.

Morse v. Frederick (2007) — Symbolic Speech, Public Demonstration

  • Juneau, Alaska student created a banner that read “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS”
  • Student encouraged other students to hold banner up across the street from the high school and away from school property during the Olympic Torch Run.
  • Student was suspended for displaying banner.
  • Supreme Court ruled in favor of principal Morse.
  • Court found that the banner violated the school’s anti-drug policy and undermined the ability of the educational mission of the school to deter drug use.

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000) –Prayer in school

  • School allowed students to offer a public prayer during a football game using the school’s public address system.
  • Parents sued saying this practice was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment.
  • Supreme Court ruled the school’s policy violated the Establishment Clause because the speech was public, sanctioned by a government policy, and using government property.

Cole v. Oroville Union High School District (9th Cir. 2000) –Religious Student Speeches

  • School Policy requirement: graduation speeches must be submitted for review by a teacher panel.
  • Two graduation speakers submitted their speeches for review.
  • The teacher panel felt the speech was proselytizing and asked that the students to edit the speech to reflect a more non denominational and inclusive tone.
  • Students refused. The school disallowed them the right to speak at graduation.
  • The students sued saying their rights had been violated under the free exercise clause.
  • The court sided with the school.
  • District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton wrote “the Free Exercise Clause does not require defendants to afford plaintiff a podium so that he can testify to his faith in God before a captive audience.”  

Freedom of Expression : Dress Code

Every school has a policy regarding appropriate dress and appearance. Dress and appearance policies seek to improve safety, discipline, and academic achievement. Dress and appearance policies have been challenged in court for a number of reasons. To date, not a single case has been granted certiorari by the US Supreme Court. A well defined policy that is reasonable has stood up in the lower courts.  

Blau v. Fort Thomas Pub. Sch. Dist. (6th Cir. 2005) — District Dress Code and Freedom of Expression

  • School district adopted dress code policies to improve the school environment (safety, discipline, academic achievement)
  • Parent believed student’s individuality was being suppressed. Individuality not within the scope of the 1st Amendment.
  • Court sided with district citing that the parent failed to demonstrate that the dress code policy was unreasonable.

Moody v. Cronin (C.D. Ill. 1979)

  • Dress code in gym class and religious beliefs.
  • Court sided with religious students.
  • Students are exempt from dress code for religious reasons.

Domico v. Rapides Parish School Board (5th Cir. 1982)

  • Case involved high style regulations.
  • Court sided with district citing evidence of health and safety concerns override student constitutional interests.

Olesen v. Board of Education of School Dist. No. 228 (N.D. Ill 1987)

  • School anti-gang policy prohibiting male earrings.
  • Court sided with school policy citing individuality was not within the scope of 1st Amendment.
  • School safety was also regarding anti-gang activity was also cited.

Broussard v. School Board of the City of Norfolk ( E.D. Virginia 1992)

  • “Drugs Suck” shirt worn to school.
  • Student suspended for one day.
  • Student lost case. Court found the word “Suck” vulgar and associated with sexual activity.

Jenglin v. San Jacinto Unified School Dist. (C.D. Cal. 1993)

  • Anti-gang dress code case.
  • Court sided with district as anti-gang dress codes promote safety.
  • Schools must demonstrate that the threat of gang violence exists.

Colorado Indep. School Dist. v. Barber (Tex. App. Eastland 1993)

  • Male students filed suit against school for unreasonable dress code policy regarding hair length and earrings.
  • Court sided with students finding the policies discriminatory.

Alabama v. Coushatta Tribes of Texas v. Big Sandy School Dist (E.D. Tex. 1993)

  • Native American male students filed suit against school for unreasonable dress code policy regarding hair length.
  • Hair length was associated with Native American Spirituality.
  • Court sided with students on the basis of religion.

McInyre v. Bethel School Indep. Dist. No. 3 (W.D. Ok. 1992)

  • Student wore a t-shirt that was an alcohol advertisement. The image and language on the shirt was vague.
  • Court sided with student. District failed to show that the t-shirt was a disruption.

Hines v. Caston School Corp (Ind. App 1995)

  • Male earring case.
  • Parent failed to show that the earring policy was unreasonable.

Pyle v. South Hadley School Committee (D. Mass. 1994)

  • Vulgar t-shirt case.
  • Court sided with district.

Bivens v. Albuquerque Public Schools (D. New Mexico, 1995)

  • Sagging pants case.
  • Court sided with district saying that the wearing of sagging pants is not speech. The policy was not deemed unconstitutional.

Canady v. Bossier Parish School Board (5th Cir. 2001)

  • School Board implemented a mandatory school uniform policy as a way to improve learning.
  • Parents sued claiming the uniform violated the 1st Amendment.
  • Court sided with the district: Judge Robert M. Parker stated, “The uniform requirement does not bar the important ‘personal intercommunication among students’ necessary to an effective educational process.”

Barber v. Dearborn Public Schools and Judith Coebly (E.D. Mich. Sept. 30, 2003) — Symbolic Speech and Student Appearence

  • Student wore a shirt with the image of President George Bush and the words “International Terrorist”
  • Student was ordered to conceal the message on the shirt or go home.
  • School claimed short might offend the Islamic population of the school.
  • Court ruled in favor of student.  Judge Patrick Duggan ruled, “There is no evidence that the T-shirt created any disturbance or disruption.”

Freedom of Association

Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (1990)

  • Student wanted to form a bible club.
  • School policy required a sponsor. School believed a sponsor would create the impression that the school endorsed religion.
  • Students sued under Equal Access Act and won.

Boyd County High School Gay Straight Alliance v. Boyd County Board of Education (ACLU Settlement 2005) — – Freedom of Association and Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered Clubs

  • School refused to sanction club that was deemed inappropriate fearing it would open the way for other sexually objectionable clubs.
  • District settled under pressure from the ACLU.
  • Terms of settlement required school to provide anti-harassment training for staff and students.

Book Banning

Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico (1982) — Banning Books in School

  • Court ruled school boards have limited book removal power.
  • Only books with pervasive vulgarity and books that are educationally unsuitable are subject to removal.
  • Books cannot be removed based on nationalistic, religious, or political views.

One Response to Important Court Cases

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