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Question Of Free Speech In Public School

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Should free speech be limited for students in public schools?

In the United States today, students and teachers are free to speak their minds on public school grounds. They can wear clothing with messages, dye their hair different colors, and wear jewelry or buttons that make a social statement. However, even with the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech by the U.S. Constitution, there are limits in the school setting. This may be to keep students safe, not condone violence or drugs, and keep students from being distracted, to name a few. In many cases, nothing anyone says is actually distracting or threatening. Therefore, students’ free speech should not be limited in public schools.

Around 399 B.C., Socrates had spoke in front of a jury at his trial for allegedly corrupting the youth. He said, “If you offered to let me off this time on condition I am not any longer to speak my mind… I should say to you, “Men of Athens, I shall obey the Gods rather than you”(Smith, David and Torres, Luc, 2006). Centuries later, in 1789, ‘The Declaration of the Rights of Man’, an important document of the French Revolution, provided for freedom of speech. A year later, after the Colonies declared independence from Great Britain, the First Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights guaranteed four freedoms. They are the right to freedom of religion, speech, the press and to assemble. This document is the foundation of what has led the country to where it is today. Over time, Americans’ right to free speech became more and more limited. One of the first issues concerning free speech was in 1873. The Comstock Act of 1873 granted the post office the authority to censor mail containing material that was “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious.” During World War I, the Sedition Act of 1918 targeted those who opposed the participation of the U.S. in the war. The act made speaking out against the federal government, during a war, a crime. Then, a decade of vast change, the 1960’s called for a better nation. While the U.S. was engaged in the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court heard one of its first cases involving free speech in public schools. The case is called Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the first of many cases heard by courts all over the country.

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Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. It allows society to develop and progress. Being able to speak freely is essential for change. If there are limits on free speech, censorship slowly becomes existent. It is a common enemy for those who were once able to express themselves. About two-thirds of the world’s population of internet users are living under government censorship. Yes, the internet can be negative for humans, but it can also be very positive. Not only do North Koreans have restricted internet access, cell phones are controlled by the government and can be used for only domestic calls. Fortunately, the U.S. does not have this kind of control on its citizens because then freedom of speech would be taken away. In the landmark case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Supreme Court recognized students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” (Justice Abe Fortas, 1969). This is not always recognized by public schools since free speech is limited.

The Tinker case was heard in November of 1968, almost three years after a group of students planned to show support for ending the Vietnam War in a truce. They did so by wearing black armbands with peace signs to school through the holiday season. On December 14th, the principal of the school learned about the plan and created a policy to ask a student to remove the armband if wearing it. If there were to be refusal, the student would be suspended. Mary Beth Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt wore their armbands to school on December 16th, which resulted in being sent home. The next day, Mary’s brother, John, did the same and got sent home. The students did not return to school until after New Year’s Day, which was planned to be the end of the protest. The parents sued the school district for violating the students’ right of expression. The case reached the Supreme Court, which ruled that the First Amendment applied to public schools and school officials could not censor student speech unless it is disrupting the educational process. The black armbands did not disrupt anything, so the First Amendment protected the right of students to wear one.

Boroff v. Van Wert City Board of Education was a case decided in 2000. A high school senior wore a Marilyn Manson t-shirt that illustrated a three-faced Jesus and said, “See No Truth. Hear No Truth. Speak No Truth”. The back of the shirt said, “BELIEVE” with the letters “LIE” highlighted. The student was told by a school official the shirt violated the school’s dress code. The policy prohibited “clothing with offensive illustrations”. After being ordered to either turn the shirt inside out or leave, the student left and came back the next day wearing another Manson shirt. This time he was sent home, resulting in him suing the school for violating his First Amendment rights. Although the majority ruled the school can prohibit clothing that is contradicting the school’s educational purpose, the dissenting judge argued school officials cannot forbid students from wearing clothing only based on whether or not they agree with its message. Clothing with such messages can be up for interpretation, which allows schools to do what was done in this case.

Students should not be limited to speak freely because in elementary school, children are taught to speak for themselves and express how they feel, only to be told this is limited by the time they enter high school. Everyone, not only students, should not feel like they are obligated to keep in what he or she believes because of limits. Is free speech really a freedom if there are limits? The legal definition of free is to not be under control or in the power of another and being able to act or do as one pleases. Students are bound to believe what they say or do is a violation of some policy in their school. Actions do speak louder than words, but some words can hurt. For example, verbal bullying can lead to depression, anxiety, and even suicide. Bullying is not illegal, but schools have worked to prevent it and save many lives. Expressing themselves to try to stop the bully sometimes gets the victim in trouble because they can become physical. As mentioned earlier, the reasons for limited speech make sense, but it is not often that lewd, violent, or pro-drug words go any further than out of a students’ mouth.

On the other hand, speech has to be limited at certain times. Cathy Kuhlmeier and two former students brought Hazelwood East High School to court after the principal, Robert E. Reynolds found two articles in the school’s newspaper to be inappropriate. The Spectrum is a school-sponsored newspaper written and edited by students. The two articles Reynolds found inappropriate contained stories on divorce and teenage pregnancy. The students mentioned in both articles gave consent and their names were changed to ensure privacy. Reynolds believed that even though the names were changed, it could not sufficiently protect them from being known. Also, since this was a high school, there were 13 and 14-year-olds who may not have been comfortable reading those types of articles. The decision to stop the newspaper from being published may have been a good one because it did not violate the students’ First Amendment rights, as the Supreme Court later ruled. Even though the majority ruled this way, there were still many others who believed it did violate their rights. A reason being that the school is public, so therefore the newspaper is, too. Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote the dissenting opinion stating, “Spectrum, the newspaper they were to publish, was not just a class exercise in which students learned to prepare papers and hone writing skills, it was a … forum established to give students an opportunity to express their views while gaining an appreciation of their rights and responsibilities under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution ….” (Justice Brennan, 1988). The articles were topics many students can relate to and learn from. By taking away their right to speak about those topics, their education gets taken away as well. School is a learning environment where students should not be limited to what they learn about.

Free speech should not be limited in public schools. If students can express themselves freely outside of school, why can they not inside? Just because school is an institution for education, officials cannot take away rights given by the Constitution. Unfortunately, this happens and steps are taken to make sure students’ rights are not completely taken away.


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