Does the First Amendment apply to public schools?

Monday, December 3, 2007

Yes. The First Amendment applies to all levels of government, including public schools. Although the courts have permitted school officials to limit the rights of students under some circumstances, the courts have also recognized that students — like all citizens — are guaranteed the rights protected by the First Amendment.

Earlier in our history, however, the First Amendment did not apply to the states — and thus not to public schools. When adopted in 1791, the First Amendment applied only to Congress and the federal government (“Congress shall make no law …”). This meant that when public schools were founded in the mid-19th century, students could not make First Amendment claims against the actions of school officials.

The restrictions on student speech lasted into the 20th century. In 1908, for example, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that school officials could suspend two students for writing a poem ridiculing their teachers that was published in a local newspaper. The Wisconsin court reasoned, “such power is essential to the preservation of order, decency, decorum, and good government in the public schools.” And in 1915, the California Court of Appeals ruled that school officials could suspend a student for criticizing and “slamming” school officials in a student assembly speech.

In fact, despite the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, which provides that “no state shall … deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law,” it was not until 1925, by way of the Supreme Court case of Gitlow v. New York, that the Supreme Court held that the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment is one of the “liberties” incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

In subsequent cases, the Court has applied all of the freedoms of the First Amendment to the states — and thus to public schools — through the 14th Amendment. But not until 1943, in the flag-salute case of West Virginia v. Barnette, did the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly extend First Amendment protection to students attending public schools.

The Barnette case began when several students who were Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to salute the flag for religious reasons. School officials punished the students and their parents. The students then sued, claiming a violation of their First Amendment rights.

At the time that the students sued, Supreme Court precedent painted a bleak picture for their chances. Just a few years earlier, the Court had ruled in favor of a similar compulsory flag-salute law in Minersville School District v. Gobitis. As the Court stated in that ruling, “national unity is the basis of national security.”

However, the high court reversed itself in Barnette, holding that the free-speech and free exercise of religion provisions of the First Amendment guarantee the right of students to be excused from the flag salute on grounds of conscience.

Writing for the majority, Justice Robert Jackson said that the Supreme Court must ensure “scrupulous protection of constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.” The Court then warned of the dangers of coercion by government in oft-cited, eloquent language:

“If there is any fixed star in our Constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”