US Supreme Court Rules: Schools Can Limit a Student's Right to Freedom of Speech

Jul 16, 2007

In what is being called a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court decided last month that schools have the right to limit a student's right to freedom of speech. Does this mean that students' rights are not co-extensive with adults'?

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One of the most recent decisions made by the Supreme Court has created a nationwide debate about a student's right to free speech. The case, Morse v. Frederick, perhaps more widely known as 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus', involved a student from Alaska's Juneau-Douglas High School.

Joseph Frederick caused a stir by holding up a banner that read 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus' at an event attended by fellow Juneau-Douglas High School students. The event was not on campus grounds, but was school sponsored.

Juneau-Douglas principal Deborah Morse confiscated the banner - Frederick was also suspended for ten days. Frederick in turn sued because he felt his right to free speech had been violated.

The actions of Frederick and Morse were debated by many before the case went to court, but now that the decision has been made, the debate between education officials and students alike has heated up.

Those who oppose the decision worry that school administrators will use it to justify the control or prevention of speech they do not agree with or find controversial. There is also concern that this control will be extended off school grounds as it was in the case of Morse v. Frederick.

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And of course, there is the argument that the constitution covers the rights of all people regardless of age. Restricting the rights of a student simply because they are a student seems to fall under the category of age discrimination.

Supporters of the ruling say administrators need to draw the line somewhere, especially if the message to others is harmful, disruptive, and advocates illegal drug activity.

'The Court clearly spoke to the health and well being of our students, not constitutional rights of free speech,' said National School Boards Association (NSBA) General Counsel Francisco Negron. 'This decision reaffirms the school's role in regulating messages that are detrimental to student welfare.'

Is this a victory for school administrators who often have the tough job of deciding what is allowable and what isn't? NSBA Executive Director Anne L. Bryant says yes.

'As a result of this decision, school administrators don't have to be afraid of someone looking over their shoulders or second guessing decisions as they carry out the policies put in place by schools boards,' said Bryant.

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