What rights to freedom of expression do students have?

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Public school students possess a range of free-expression rights under the First Amendment. Students can speak, write articles, assemble to form groups and even petition school officials on issues. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

There is a fundamental distinction between public and private school students under the First Amendment. The First Amendment and the other provisions of the Bill of Rights limit the government from infringing on an individual’s rights. Public school officials act as part of the government and are called state actors. As such, they must act according to the principles in the Bill of Rights. Private schools, however, aren’t arms of the government. Therefore, the First Amendment does not provide protection for students at private schools.

Though public school students do possess First Amendment freedoms, the courts allow school officials to regulate certain types of student expression. For example, school officials may prohibit speech that substantially disrupts the school environment or that invades the rights of others. Many courts have held that school officials can restrict student speech that is lewd.

Many state constitutions contain provisions safeguarding free expression. Some state Supreme Courts have interpreted their constitutions to provide greater protection than the federal Constitution. In addition, a few states have adopted laws providing greater protection for freedom of speech.