Student “Free” Speech Rights

Freedom from governmental interference with speech is guaranteed to everyone in New Jersey by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and by Article 1, paragraphs 4, 6 and 18 of the New Jersey Constitution.

 

Because public schools are government entities, students have free speech rights at public schools and have wide latitude to express their ideas and opinions.  Students cannot be disciplined for merely expressing an idea, as long as that expression does not disrupt educational activity or interfere with the rights of others.  This rule applies whether students are communicating an idea or political viewpoint as part of a class discussion or protesting a government or school policy outside class.

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Normally, peaceful expression, no matter how unpopular or controversial, may not be censored.  These rights, however, do have limitations.

  • Students may not encourage others to commit acts of violence.
  • Students who make false personal attacks may be disciplined or sued for slander or libel.
  • If students’ speech is obscene, they may be punished by both school and government authorities. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a school district may discipline a student for using sexual innuendo in a speech, even though the speech would not have been punishable if given outside of school. In addition, a New Jersey court has held that students could be disciplined for lewd and obscene chants at a school basketball game that were “loud, offensive, disruptive, and disturbing to neighboring spectators.”
  • The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that at school-sponsored events that promoted or approved drug use could be censored.
  • A federal district court held that a school did not violate a kindergartner’s First Amendment rights by suspending the student for saying, “I’m going to shoot you,” because a balance must be struck between the student’s rights and the school’s role in fostering “socially appropriate behavior.”

Also, it should be understood that school officials can impose reasonable restrictions on when, where and how speech activities can take place in order to prevent disruption of educational activities.

 

Some examples of reasonable restrictions include

  • A school can limit passing out flyers in hallways to times before and after school and during lunch in order to protect students and maintain a proper educational environment.
  • A school could not, however, maintain a blanket rule against handing out literature anywhere or at any time during school.
  • Students may express their views not only verbally, but also through symbolic speech, such as wearing armbands or political buttons. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the landmark case establishing student free speech rights, three public school students had been suspended from school for wearing black armbands to protest theVietnam War. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the students’ peaceful protest was protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.This protection extends to the use of buttons, flags, decals and other badges of symbolic expression, as long as they are not “obscene” and do not directly provoke a “material and substantial” interference with classroom activities or the rights of others.

Students’ rights to express their views cannot be abridged simply because the views are unpopular with school officials or other students, or because administrators fear students reacting to a symbol will cause a disruption.

Contact Skilled New Jersey Attorneys About Student Free Speech Rights

For experienced and aggressive representation Student Free Speech Rights cases, contact Mark Law Firm, to schedule an appointment. Call 908-375-6767, 908-375-6767, 201-431-7541 or toll free 888-734-8287, or contact the firm online for advice, support and compassionate counsel.