Freedom of Expression in Special Places
Written by Margaret Fisher, Institute for Citizen Education in the Law, Seattle, WA. Staff at the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) updated the lesson in 2012. For more information, contact AOC Court Services, 1206 Quince Street SE, PO Box 41170, Olympia, WA 98504-1170. For an electronic copy of this lesson, or to view other lesson plans, visit Educational Resources on the Washington Courts Web site at: www.courts.wa.gov/education/.
One class period (approximately 50 minutes)
Note: This lesson assumes that the teacher taught the First Amendment to students prior to the judge's coming, including Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969). The judge will focus on expression in special places. See companion lesson on Morse v. Frederick, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007.
Clarify with students that they understand their task in groups. Tell students that they have 7 minutes to list their arguments. While students are working in groups, the judge should circulate and observe all groups to determine they are on task. The judge should not take over any small group, but instead should give any needed instruction or prompt discussion with questions.
The Case of the School Newspaper
A high school principal deleted two pages from the year's final issue of the school newspaper because the two pages contained one story on student experiences with pregnancy and another story about the impact of divorce on students. The school principal believed the stories had been written in such a way that the privacy rights of some students and some parents might be violated. He also believed the topics might offend some of the younger students at school.
The newspaper was written as part of the school's advanced journalism class. Following the school's regular practice, the journalism teacher had submitted the page proofs to the principal just before publication. The principal deleted the two pages on which the articles appeared. Those pages also contained several stories to which he did not object. His reason for deleting the pages was that the school year was almost over, and he did not believe that there would be enough time to rewrite the offensive stories.
The existing school board policy said: "School sponsored student publications will not restrict free expression or diverse viewpoints within the rules of responsible journalism."
THE STUDENT EDITORS OF THE PAPER SUED THE PRINCIPAL AND THE SCHOOL DISTRICT, ARGUING THAT THEIR FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHTS HAD BEEN VIOLATED.
The students' constitutional rights were violated when the principal deleted the two pages. The newspaper is a public forum. Even though the newspaper was produced by the journalism class, it is a "student publication" in every sense. The students chose the staff members, determined the articles to be written and printed, and determined the content of those articles.
In order for school officials to censor the newspaper, they must show that the censorship was necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with school work, or to enforce discipline, or to protect the rights of others.
There was no evidence that the principal could have reasonably believed there would be material disruption to the classroom or substantial disorder in school. There was no evidence that the pregnancy article would show administration agreement with the sexual norms expressed by students. Nor was there evidence to support that the topic is inappropriate given the age and maturity of the readers, especially since teenage pregnancy occurs in every high school in the United States.
School administrators may only censor the articles to prevent invasion of the rights of others when the school could be held liable in a civil lawsuit. There is no threat that this would happen.
The principal has the right to delete the pages. School officials have the right to regulate student speech that conflicts with the school's basic educational mission, even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school.
The school's newspaper is not a public forum for expression because it is not open to use by the general public or student organizations. Production of the newspaper is part of the educational curriculum and a regular classroom activity under the journalism teacher's control. Therefore, school officials may regulate the paper's contents in any reasonable manner. The school principal acted reasonably in requiring deletion of the pages.
The standard for determining when a school may punish student expression that happens to occur on school premises is not the standard for determining when a school may refuse to lend its name and resources to the dissemination of student expression. The Tinker case does not apply. Educators have the right to edit the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate educational concerns.
Identify and rank the arguments here. Add any arguments of your own that are not included in the opinion.
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