Today, the Supreme Court struck down a Ninth Circuit Court ruling protecting the right of a student to put up a banner during a school event that said “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” I’m not surprised at the ruling, and frankly have two minds about it.
First, I do think that we need to be careful as a nation how much speech we prohibit. Every chip away on our freedoms – especially expression of all forms is dangerous.
Second, as a teacher, I think that we need to remember that there are TIME and PLACE restrictions on speech and that schools do need a certain level of sanity and civility in order to function properly.
OK, so what does this case mean? I do believe that it does set into stone the concept that school principals do have the power to restrict the speech/expression of minors on campus when that speech violates a school rule (sexual, violent or drug content) or would cause a disruption to the mission of the school – educating children. The Supreme Court is going to back up principals and administrators when it comes to these kinds of topics.
This has been well established in precedent in the cases of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District where the court first set down that school could enforce restrictions on disruptive behavior (but also protected certain political speech) and Bethel School District v. Fraser where the court stated that schools could restrict sexually offensive speech. This new case fits into this same pattern of allowing administrators the power to restrict student expression on campus or at school sponsored events.
Finally, I do think the school was excessive in its punishment of this student, simply because they didn’t like what he did. But I also know that he admits to doing it just to push how far he could go. That kind of attitude is not going to get him kind treatment by a school official, especially when he backed up his actions with lawyers. I think the student felt the “religious” nature of his speech would protect him, but it did not.
I do think it is somewhat troubling for media advisers who deal with students who constantly want to push the limits of the rules. As employees of the district, we are not protected by the first amendment in any way. In many cases we are expected to help and assist administrators in restricting students from publishing or airing similar types of situations. We are caught in the middle. We want to encourage our students to pursue challenging topics, but we are also beholden to school rules, district policy and state laws.
The best we can do is advise our students to use the SPLC and other organizations, and advise our principals to be as understanding as possible before censoring publications or broadcasts.
Today’s ruling made it all that much more clear that teachers need to be careful wading into the waters of censorship and risky student expression, especially those areas like religion, sexuality, drugs, and violence. Unfortunately, that means that many times it will allow administrators to intimidate teachers and students into maintaining student publications as PR tools and not journalistic mediums.
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