Speech and Expression

Student Speech

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)

393 U.S. 503 (1969)

Vote: 7-2
Decision: Reversed
Majority: Fortas, joined by Warren, Douglas, Brennan, White and Marshall
Concurrence: Stewart
Concurrence: White
Dissent: Black
Dissent: Harlan

Justice Fortas delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner John F. Tinker, 15 years old, and petitioner Christopher Eckhardt, 16 years old, attended high schools in Des Moines, Iowa. Petitioner Mary Beth Tinker, John’s sister, was a 13-year-old student in junior high school.

In December, 1965, a group of adults and students in Des Moines held a meeting at the Eckhardt home. The group determined to publicize their objections to the hostilities in Vietnam and their support for a truce by wearing black armbands during the holiday season and by fasting on December 16 and New Year’s Eve. Petitioners and their parents had previously engaged in similar activities, and they decided to participate in the program.

The principals of the Des Moines schools became aware of the plan to wear armbands. On December 14, 1965, they met and adopted a policy that any student wearing an armband to school would be asked to remove it, and, if he refused, he would be suspended until he returned without the armband. Petitioners were aware of the regulation that the school authorities adopted.

On December 16, Mary Beth and Christopher wore black armbands to their schools. John Tinker wore his armband the next day. They were all sent home and suspended from school until they would come back without their armbands. They did not return to school until after the planned period for wearing armbands had expired — that is, until after New Year’s Day.

This complaint was filed in the United States District Court by petitioners, through their fathers … It prayed for an injunction restraining the respondent school officials and the respondent members of the board of directors of the school district from disciplining the petitioners, and it sought nominal damages. After an evidentiary hearing, the District Court dismissed the complaint. It upheld the constitutionality of the school authorities’ action on the ground that it was reasonable in order to prevent disturbance of school discipline. The court referred to, but expressly declined to follow, the Fifth Circuit’s holding in a similar case that the wearing of symbols like the armbands cannot be prohibited unless it “materially and substantially interfere[s] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” Burnside v. Byars, (1966).

On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit considered the case en banc. The court was equally divided, and the District Court’s decision was accordingly affirmed without opinion. We granted certiorari.

The District Court recognized that the wearing of an armband for the purpose of expressing certain views is the type of symbolic act that is within the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. As we shall discuss, the wearing of armbands in the circumstances of this case was entirely divorced from actually or potentially disruptive conduct by those participating in it. It was closely akin to “pure speech” which, we have repeatedly held, is entitled to comprehensive protection under the First Amendment.

First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. This has been the unmistakable holding of this Court for almost 50 years …

In West Virginia v. Barnette (1943) … this Court held that, under the First Amendment, the student in public school may not be compelled to salute the flag … On the other hand, the Court has repeatedly emphasized the need for affirming the comprehensive authority of the States and of school officials, consistent with fundamental constitutional safeguards, to prescribe and control conduct in the schools. Our problem lies in the area where students in the exercise of First Amendment rights collide with the rules of the school authorities.

The problem posed by the present case does not relate to regulation of the length of skirts or the type of clothing, to hair style, or deportment. It does not concern aggressive, disruptive action or even group demonstrations. Our problem involves direct, primary First Amendment rights akin to “pure speech.”

The school officials banned and sought to punish petitioners for a silent, passive expression of opinion, unaccompanied by any disorder or disturbance on the part of petitioners. There is here no evidence whatever of petitioners’ interference, actual or nascent, with the schools’ work or of collision with the rights of other students to be secure and to be let alone. Accordingly, this case does not concern speech or action that intrudes upon the work of the schools or the rights of other students.

Only a few of the 18,000 students in the school system wore the black armbands. Only five students were suspended for wearing them. There is no indication that the work of the schools or any class was disrupted. Outside the classrooms, a few students made hostile remarks to the children wearing armbands, but there were no threats or acts of violence on school premises.

The District Court concluded that the action of the school authorities was reasonable because it was based upon their fear of a disturbance from the wearing of the armbands. But, in our system, undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression. Any departure from absolute regimentation may cause trouble. Any variation from the majority’s opinion may inspire fear. Any word spoken, in class, in the lunchroom, or on the campus, that deviates from the views of another person may start an argument or cause a disturbance. But our Constitution says we must take this risk and our history says that it is this sort of hazardous freedom — this kind of openness — that is the basis of our national strength and of the independence and vigor of Americans who grow up and live in this relatively permissive, often disputatious, society.

In order for the State in the person of school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint. Certainly where there is no finding and no showing that engaging in the forbidden conduct would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school,” the prohibition cannot be sustained.

In the present case, the District Court made no such finding, and our independent examination of the record fails to yield evidence that the school authorities had reason to anticipate that the wearing of the armbands would substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge upon the rights of other students. Even an official memorandum prepared after the suspension that listed the reasons for the ban on wearing the armbands made no reference to the anticipation of such disruption.

On the contrary, the action of the school authorities appears to have been based upon an urgent wish to avoid the controversy which might result from the expression, even by the silent symbol of armbands, of opposition to this Nation’s part in the conflagration in Vietnam …

It is also relevant that the school authorities did not purport to prohibit the wearing of all symbols of political or controversial significance. The record shows that students in some of the schools wore buttons relating to national political campaigns, and some even wore the Iron Cross, traditionally a symbol of Nazism. The order prohibiting the wearing of armbands did not extend to these. Instead, a particular symbol — black armbands worn to exhibit opposition to this Nation’s involvement in Vietnam — was singled out for prohibition. Clearly, the prohibition of expression of one particular opinion, at least without evidence that it is necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline, is not constitutionally permissible.

In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school, as well as out of school, are “persons” under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate. They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved. In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views …

The principle of these cases is not confined to the supervised and ordained discussion which takes place in the classroom. The principal use to which the schools are dedicated is to accommodate students during prescribed hours for the purpose of certain types of activities. Among those activities is personal intercommunication among the students. This is not only an inevitable part of the process of attending school; it is also an important part of the educational process. A student’s rights, therefore, do not embrace merely the classroom hours. When he is in the cafeteria, or on the playing field, or on the campus during the authorized hours, he may express his opinions, even on controversial subjects like the conflict in Vietnam, if he does so without “materially and substantially interfer[ing] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school” and without colliding with the rights of others. But conduct by the student, in class or out of it, which for any reason — whether it stems from time, place, or type of behavior — materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is, of course, not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.

Under our Constitution, free speech is not a right that is given only to be so circumscribed that it exists in principle, but not in fact. Freedom of expression would not truly exist if the right could be exercised only in an area that a benevolent government has provided as a safe haven for crackpots. The Constitution says that Congress (and the States) may not abridge the right to free speech. This provision means what it says. We properly read it to permit reasonable regulation of speech-connected activities in carefully restricted circumstances. But we do not confine the permissible exercise of First Amendment rights to a telephone booth or the four corners of a pamphlet, or to supervised and ordained discussion in a school classroom.

… We express no opinion as to the form of relief which should be granted, this being a matter for the lower courts to determine. We reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Reversed and remanded.

Mr. Justice Stewart, concurring.

Although I agree with much of what is said in the Court’s opinion, and with its judgment in this case, I cannot share the Court’s uncritical assumption that, school discipline aside, the First Amendment rights of children are coextensive with those of adults. Indeed, I had thought the Court decided otherwise just last Term in Ginsberg v. New York (1968). I continue to hold the view I expressed in that case:

“[A] State may permissibly determine that, at least in some precisely delineated areas, a child — like someone in a captive audience — is not possessed of that full capacity for individual choice which is the presupposition of First Amendment guarantees.”

MR. JUSTICE BLACK, dissenting.

The Court’s holding in this case ushers in what I deem to be an entirely new era in which the power to control pupils by the elected “officials of state supported public schools …” in the United States is in ultimate effect transferred to the Supreme Court. The Court brought this particular case here on a petition for certiorari urging that the First and Fourteenth Amendments protect the right of school pupils to express their political views all the way “from kindergarten through high school.” Here, the constitutional right to “political expression” asserted was a right to wear black armbands during school hours and at classes in order to demonstrate to the other students that the petitioners were mourning because of the death of United States soldiers in Vietnam and to protest that war which they were against. Ordered to refrain from wearing the armbands in school by the elected school officials and the teachers vested with state authority to do so, apparently only seven out of the school system’s 18,000 pupils deliberately refused to obey the order …

As I read the Court’s opinion, it relies upon the following grounds for holding unconstitutional the judgment of the Des Moines school officials and the two courts below. First, the Court concludes that the wearing of armbands is “symbolic speech,” which is “akin to pure speech,'” and therefore protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Secondly, the Court decides that the public schools are an appropriate place to exercise “symbolic speech” as long as normal school functions are not “unreasonably” disrupted. Finally, the Court arrogates to itself, rather than to the State’s elected officials charged with running the schools, the decision as to which school disciplinary regulations are “reasonable.”

Assuming that the Court is correct in holding that the conduct of wearing armbands for the purpose of conveying political ideas is protected by the First Amendment, cf., e.g., Giboney v. Empire Storage & Ice Co., (1949), the crucial remaining questions are whether students and teachers may use the schools at their whim as a platform for the exercise of free speech — “symbolic” or “pure” — and whether the courts will allocate to themselves the function of deciding how the pupils’ school day will be spent. While I have always believed that, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, neither the State nor the Federal Government has any authority to regulate or censor the content of speech, I have never believed that any person has a right to give speeches or engage in demonstrations where he pleases and when he pleases …

Even a casual reading of the record shows that this armband did divert students’ minds from their regular lessons, and that talk, comments, etc., made John Tinker “self-conscious” in attending school with his armband. While the absence of obscene remarks or boisterous and loud disorder perhaps justifies the Court’s statement that the few armband students did not actually “disrupt” the classwork, I think the record overwhelmingly shows that the armbands did exactly what the elected school officials and principals foresaw they would, that is, took the students’ minds off their classwork and diverted them to thoughts about the highly emotional subject of the Vietnam war …

I deny, therefore, that it has been the “unmistakable holding of this Court for almost 50 years” that “students” and “teachers” take with them into the “schoolhouse gate” constitutional rights to “freedom of speech or expression.” … The truth is that a teacher of kindergarten, grammar school, or high school pupils no more carries into a school with him a complete right to freedom of speech and expression than an anti-Catholic or anti-Semite carries with him a complete freedom of speech and religion into a Catholic church or Jewish synagogue. Nor does a person carry with him into the United States Senate or House, or into the Supreme Court, or any other court, a complete constitutional right to go into those places contrary to their rules and speak his mind on any subject he pleases …

… This case, therefore, wholly without constitutional reasons, in my judgment, subjects all the public schools in the country to the whims and caprices of their loudest-mouthed, but maybe not their brightest, students. I, for one, am not fully persuaded that school pupils are wise enough, even with this Court’s expert help from Washington, to run the 23,390 public school systems in our 50 States. I wish, therefore, wholly to disclaim any purpose on my part to hold that the Federal Constitution compels the teachers, parents, and elected school officials to surrender control of the American public school system to public school students. I dissent.

Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982)

457 U.S. 853 (1982)

Vote: 5-4
Decision: Affirmed
Plurality: Brennan, joined by Marshall, Stevens and Blackmun (all but parts IIA(1))
Concurrence: Blackmun, in part
Concurrence: White, in judgment
Dissent: Burger, joined by Powell, Rehnquist and O’Connor
Dissent: Powell
Dissent: Rehnquist, joined by Burger and Powell
Dissent: O’Connor

JUSTICE BRENNAN announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which JUSTICE MARSHALL and JUSTICE STEVENS joined, and in which JUSTICE BLACKMUN joined except for Part II-A-(1).

The principal question presented is whether the First Amendment imposes limitations upon the exercise by a local school board of its discretion to remove library books from high school and junior high school libraries.

Petitioners are the Board of Education of the Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26, in New York, and Richard Ahrens, Frank Martin, Christina Fasulo, Patrick Hughes, Richard Melchers, Richard Michaels, and Louis Nessim. When this suit was brought, Ahrens was the  President of the Board, Martin was the Vice President, and the remaining petitioners were Board members. The Board is a state agency charged with responsibility for the operation and administration of the public schools within the Island Trees School District, including the Island Trees High School and Island Trees Memorial Junior High School. Respondents are Steven Pico, Jacqueline Gold, Glenn Yarris, Russell Rieger, and Paul Sochinski. When this suit was brought, Pico, Gold, Yarris, and Rieger were students at the High School, and Sochinski was a student at the Junior High School.

In September, 1975, petitioners Ahrens, Martin, and Hughes attended a conference sponsored by Parents of New York United (PONYU), a politically conservative organization of parents concerned about education legislation in the State of New York. At the conference, these petitioners obtained lists of books described by Ahrens as “objectionable,” and by Martin as “improper fare for school students,” … It was later determined that the High School library contained nine of the listed books, and that another listed book was in the Junior High School library. In February, 1976, at a meeting with the Superintendent of Schools and the Principals of the High School and Junior High School, the Board gave an “unofficial direction” that the listed books be removed from the library shelves and delivered to the Board’s offices so that Board members could read them. When this directive was carried out, it became publicized, and the Board issued a press release justifying its action. It characterized the removed books as “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy,” and concluded that “[i]t is our duty, our moral obligation, to protect the children in our schools from this moral danger as surely as from physical and medical dangers.”  474 F. Supp. 387, 390 (EDNY 1979).

A short time later, the Board appointed a “Book Review Committee,” consisting of four Island Trees parents and four members of the Island Trees schools staff, to read the listed books and to recommend to the Board whether the books should be retained, taking into account the books’ “educational suitability,” “good taste,” “relevance,” and “appropriateness to age and grade level.” In July, the Committee made its final report to the Board, recommending that five of the listed books be retained and that two others be removed from the school libraries. As for the remaining four books, the Committee could not agree on two, took no position on one, and recommended that the last book be made available to students only with parental approval. The Board substantially rejected the Committee’s report later that month, deciding that only one book should be returned to the High School library without restriction, that another should be made available subject to parental approval but that the remaining nine books should “be removed from elementary and secondary libraries and [from] use in the curriculum.”  The Board gave no reasons for rejecting the recommendations of the Committee that it had appointed.

Respondents reacted to the Board’s decision by bringing the present action … They alleged that petitioners had “ordered the removal of the books from school libraries and proscribed their use in the curriculum because particular passages in the books offended their social, political and moral tastes, and not because the books, taken as a whole, were lacking in educational value.”

Respondents claimed that the Board’s actions denied them their rights under the First Amendment. They asked the court for a declaration that the Board’s actions were unconstitutional, and for preliminary and permanent injunctive relief ordering the Board to return the nine books to the school libraries and to refrain from interfering with the use of those books in the schools’ curricula.

The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of petitioners … In the court’s view, “the parties substantially agree[d] about the motivation behind the board’s actions,” — namely, that

“the board acted not on religious principles, but on its conservative educational philosophy, and on its belief that the nine books removed from the school library and curriculum were irrelevant, vulgar, immoral, and in bad taste, making them educationally unsuitable for the district’s junior and senior high school students.”

With this factual premise as its background, the court rejected respondents’ contention that their First Amendment rights had been infringed by the Board’s actions …

A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the judgment of the District Court, and remanded the action for a trial on respondents’ allegations. Each judge on the panel filed a separate opinion. Delivering the judgment of the court, Judge Sifton treated the case as involving “an unusual and irregular intervention in the school libraries’ operations by persons not routinely concerned with such matters,” and concluded that petitioners were obliged to demonstrate a reasonable basis for interfering with respondents’ First Amendment rights. He then determined that, at least at the summary judgment stage, petitioners had not offered sufficient justification for their action, and concluded that respondents

“should have … been offered an opportunity to persuade a finder of fact that the ostensible justifications for [petitioners’] actions … were simply pretexts for the suppression of free speech.”

… We granted certiorari.

We emphasize at the outset the limited nature of the substantive question presented by the case before us. Our precedents have long recognized certain constitutional limits upon the power of the State to control even the curriculum and classroom … Respondents do not seek in this Court to impose limitations upon their school Board’s discretion to prescribe the curricula of the Island Trees schools. On the contrary, the only books at issue in this case are library books, books that, by their nature, are optional, rather than required, reading. Our adjudication of the present case thus does not intrude into the classroom, or into the compulsory courses taught there. Furthermore, even as to library books, the action before us does not involve the acquisition of books. Respondents have not sought to compel their school Board to add to the school library shelves any books that students desire to read. Rather, the only action challenged in this case is the removal from school libraries of books originally placed there by the school authorities, or without objection from them.

… In sum, the issue before us in this case is a narrow one, both substantively and procedurally. It may best be restated as two distinct questions. First, does the First Amendment impose any limitations upon the discretion of petitioners to remove library books from the Island Trees High School and Junior High School? Second, if so, do the affidavits and other evidentiary materials before the District Court, construed most favorably to respondents, raise a genuine issue of fact whether petitioners might have exceeded those limitations? If we answer either of these questions in the negative, then we must reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and reinstate the District Court’s summary judgment for petitioners. If we answer both questions in the affirmative, then we must affirm the judgment below. We examine these questions in turn.

The Court has long recognized that local school boards have broad discretion in the management of school affairs. Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) [other citations omitted]. We have also acknowledged that public schools are vitally important “in the preparation of individuals for participation as citizens,” and as vehicles for “inculcating fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system.” Ambach v. Norwick, (1979). We are therefore in full agreement with petitioners that local school boards must be permitted “to establish and apply their curriculum in such a way as to transmit community values,” and that “there is a legitimate and substantial community interest in promoting respect for authority and traditional values be they social, moral, or political.” …

At the same time, however, we have necessarily recognized that the discretion of the States and local school boards in matters of education must be exercised in a manner that comports with the transcendent imperatives of the First Amendment …

… In sum, students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” … and therefore local school boards must discharge their “important, delicate, and highly discretionary functions” within the limits and constraints of the First Amendment.

The nature of students’ First Amendment rights in the context of this case requires further examination. West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, (1943) is instructive. There the Court held that students’ liberty of conscience could not be infringed in the name of “national unity” or “patriotism.” … Similarly, Tinker … held that students’ rights to freedom of expression of their political views could not be abridged by reliance upon an “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance” arising from such expression …

Of course, courts should not “intervene in the resolution of conflicts which arise in the daily operation of school systems” unless “basic constitutional values” are “directly and sharply implicate[d]” in those conflicts … But we think that the First Amendment rights of students may be directly and sharply implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school library …

This right is an inherent corollary of the rights of free speech and press that are explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution … the right to receive ideas follows ineluctably from the sender’s First Amendment right to send them … In sum, just as access to ideas makes it possible for citizens generally to exercise their rights of free speech and press in a meaningful manner, such access prepares students for active and effective participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society in which they will soon be adult members. Of course all First Amendment rights accorded to students must be construed “in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.” … But the special characteristics of the school library make that environment especially appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students …

Petitioners emphasize the inculcative function of secondary education, and argue that they must be allowed unfettered discretion to “transmit community values” through the Island Trees schools. But that sweeping claim overlooks the unique role of the school library. It appears from the record that use of the Island Trees school libraries is completely voluntary on the part of students. Their selection of books from these libraries is entirely a matter of free choice; the libraries afford them an opportunity at self-education and individual enrichment that is wholly optional. Petitioners might well defend their claim of absolute discretion in matters of curriculum by reliance upon their duty to inculcate community values. But we think that petitioners’ reliance upon that duty is misplaced where, as here, they attempt to extend their claim of absolute discretion beyond the compulsory environment of the classroom, into the school library and the regime of voluntary inquiry that there holds sway.

In rejecting petitioners’ claim of absolute discretion to remove books from their school libraries, we do not deny that local school boards have a substantial legitimate role to play in the determination of school library content. We thus must turn to the question of the extent to which the First Amendment places limitations upon the discretion of petitioners to remove books from their libraries. In this inquiry, we enjoy the guidance of several precedents.  West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, (1943) stated:

“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. … If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.” …

Petitioners rightly possess significant discretion to determine the content of their school libraries. But that discretion may not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner. If a Democratic school board, motivated by party affiliation, ordered the removal of all books written by or in favor of Republicans, few would doubt that the order violated the constitutional rights of the students denied access to those books. The same conclusion would surely apply if an all-white school board, motivated by racial animus, decided to remove all books authored by blacks or advocating racial equality and integration. Our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas. Thus, whether petitioners’ removal of books from their school libraries denied respondents their First Amendment rights depends upon the motivation behind petitioners’ actions. If petitioners intended by their removal decision to deny respondents access to ideas with which petitioners disagreed, and if this intent was the decisive factor in petitioners’ decision, then petitioners have exercised their discretion in violation of the Constitution … On the other hand, respondents implicitly concede that an unconstitutional motivation would not be demonstrated if it were shown that petitioners had decided to remove the books at issue because those books were pervasively vulgar … And again, respondents concede that, if it were demonstrated that the removal decision was based solely upon the “educational suitability” of the books in question, then their removal would be “perfectly permissible.” In other words, in respondents’ view, such motivations, if decisive of petitioners’ actions, would not carry the danger of an official suppression of ideas, and thus would not violate respondents’ First Amendment rights …

We now turn to the remaining question presented by this case: do the evidentiary materials that were before the District Court, when construed most favorably to respondents, raise a genuine issue of material fact whether petitioners exceeded constitutional limitations in exercising their discretion to remove the books from the school libraries? We conclude that the materials do raise such a question, which foreclose summary judgment in favor of petitioners.

Before the District Court, respondents claimed that petitioners’ decision to remove the books “was based on [their] personal values, morals and tastes.” … Respondents also claimed that petitioners objected to the books in part because excerpts from them were “anti-American.”  The accuracy of these claims was partially conceded by petitioners, and petitioners’ own affidavits lent further support to respondents’ claims … Furthermore, while the Book Review Committee appointed by petitioners was instructed to make its recommendations based upon criteria that appear on their face to be permissible — the books’ “educational suitability,” “good taste,” “relevance,” and “appropriateness to age and grade level,” … — the Committee’s recommendations that five of the books be retained and that only two be removed were essentially rejected by petitioners, without any statement of reasons for doing so. Finally, while petitioners originally defended their removal decision with the explanation that “these books contain obscenities, blasphemies, brutality, and perversion beyond description,” … one of the books, A Reader for Writers, was removed even though it contained no such language …

Standing alone, this evidence respecting the substantive motivations behind petitioners’ removal decision would not be decisive. This would be a very different case if the record demonstrated that petitioners had employed established, regular, and facially unbiased procedures for the review of controversial materials. But the actual record in the case before us suggests the exact opposite. Petitioners’ removal procedures were vigorously challenged below by respondents, and the evidence on this issue sheds further light on the issue of petitioners’ motivations … The record shows that, immediately after petitioners first ordered the books removed from the library shelves, the Superintendent of Schools reminded them that “we already have a policy … designed expressly to handle such problems,” and recommended that the removal decision be approached through this established channel … But the Board disregarded the Superintendent’s advice … In sum, respondents’ allegations and some of the evidentiary materials presented below do not rule out the possibility that petitioners’ removal procedures were highly irregular and ad hoc — the antithesis of those procedures that might tend to allay suspicions regarding petitioners’ motivations.

… Of course, some of the evidence before the District Court might lead a finder of fact to accept petitioners’ claim that their removal decision was based upon constitutionally valid concerns. But that evidence, at most, creates a genuine issue of material fact on the critical question of the credibility of petitioners’ justifications for their decision: on that issue, it simply cannot be said that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact.

The mandate shall issue forthwith.


JUSTICE O’CONNOR, dissenting.

If the school board can set the curriculum, select teachers, and determine initially what books to purchase for the school library, it surely can decide which books to discontinue or remove from the school library, so long as it does not also interfere with the right of students to read the material and to discuss it. As JUSTICE REHNQUIST persuasively argues, the plurality’s analysis overlooks the fact that, in this case, the government is acting in its special role as educator.

I do not personally agree with the Board’s action with respect to some of the books in question here, but it is not the function of the courts to make the decisions that have been properly relegated to the elected members of school boards. It is the school board that must determine educational suitability, and it has done so in this case. I therefore join THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s dissent.

Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986)

478 U.S. 675 (1986)

Vote: 7-2
Decision: Reversed
Majority: Burger, joined by White, Powell, Rehnquist and O’Connor
Concurrence: Brennan
Concurrence: Blackmun
Dissent: Marshall
Dissent: Stevens

Chief Justice Burger delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to decide whether the First Amendment prevents a school district from disciplining a high school student for giving a lewd speech at a school assembly.

On April 26, 1983, respondent Matthew N. Fraser, a student at Bethel High School in Pierce County, Washington, delivered a speech nominating a fellow student for student elective office. Approximately 600 high school students, many of whom were 14-year-olds, attended the assembly. Students were required to attend the assembly or to report to the study hall. The assembly was part of a school-sponsored educational program in self-government … During the entire speech, Fraser referred to his candidate in terms of an elaborate, graphic, and explicit sexual metaphor.

Two of Fraser’s teachers, with whom he discussed the contents of his speech in advance, informed him that the speech was “inappropriate and that he probably should not deliver it,” and that his delivery of the speech might have “severe consequences.”

During Fraser’s delivery of the speech, a school counselor observed the reaction of students to the speech. Some students hooted and yelled; some by gestures graphically simulated the sexual activities pointedly alluded to in respondent’s speech. Other students appeared to be bewildered and embarrassed by the speech. One teacher reported that, on the day following the speech, she found it necessary to forgo a portion of the scheduled class lesson in order to discuss the speech with the class. A Bethel High School disciplinary rule prohibiting the use of obscene language in the school provides:

“Conduct which materially and substantially interferes with the educational process is prohibited, including the use of obscene, profane language or gestures.”

The morning after the assembly, the Assistant Principal called Fraser into her office and notified him that the school considered his speech to have been a violation of this rule. Fraser was presented with copies of five letters submitted by teachers, describing his conduct at the assembly; he was given a chance to explain his conduct and he admitted to having given the speech described and that he deliberately used sexual innuendo in the speech. Fraser was then informed that he would be suspended for three days, and that his name would be removed from the list of candidates for graduation speaker at the school’s commencement exercises.

Fraser sought review of this disciplinary action through the School District’s grievance procedures. The hearing officer determined that the speech given by respondent was “indecent, lewd, and offensive to the modesty and decency of many of the students and faculty in attendance at the assembly.” The examiner determined that the speech fell within the ordinary meaning of “obscene,” as used in the disruptive conduct rule, and affirmed the discipline in its entirety. Fraser served two days of his suspension, and was allowed to return to school on the third day.

Respondent, by his father as guardian ad litem, then brought this action in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. Respondent alleged a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech, and sought both injunctive relief and monetary damages … The District Court held that the school’s sanctions violated respondent’s right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, that the school’s disruptive conduct rule is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, and that the removal of respondent’s name from the graduation speaker’s list violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because the disciplinary rule makes no mention of such removal as a possible sanction. The District Court awarded respondent $278 in damages, $12,750 in litigation costs and attorney’s fees, and enjoined the School District from preventing respondent from speaking at the commencement ceremonies. Respondent, who had been elected graduation speaker by a write-in vote of his classmates, delivered a speech at the commencement ceremonies on June 8, 1983.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the District Court, holding that respondent’s speech was indistinguishable from the protest armband in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist. (1969) …

We granted certiorari. We reverse.

This Court acknowledged in Tinker that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The Court of Appeals read that case as precluding any discipline of Fraser for indecent speech and lewd conduct in the school assembly. That court appears to have proceeded on the theory that the use of lewd and obscene speech in order to make what the speaker considered to be a point in a nominating speech for a fellow student was essentially the same as the wearing of an armband in Tinker as a form of protest or the expression of a political position.

The marked distinction between the political “message” of the armbands in Tinker and the sexual content of respondent’s speech in this case seems to have been given little weight by the Court of Appeals. In upholding the students’ right to engage in a nondisruptive, passive expression of a political viewpoint in Tinker, this Court was careful to note that the case did “not concern speech or action that intrudes upon the work of the schools or the rights of other students.” …

The role and purpose of the American public school system were well described by two historians, who stated:

“[P]ublic education must prepare pupils for citizenship in the Republic. … It must inculcate the habits and manners of civility as values in themselves conducive to happiness and as indispensable to the practice of self-government in the community and the nation.”

C. Beard & M. Beard, New Basic History of the United States 228 (1968). …

These fundamental values of “habits and manners of civility” essential to a democratic society must, of course, include tolerance of divergent political and religious views, even when the views expressed may be unpopular. But these “fundamental values” must also take into account consideration of the sensibilities of others, and, in the case of a school, the sensibilities of fellow students. The undoubted freedom to advocate unpopular and controversial views in schools and classrooms must be balanced against the society’s countervailing interest in teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior. Even the most heated political discourse in a democratic society requires consideration for the personal sensibilities of the other participants and audiences …

The First Amendment guarantees wide freedom in matters of adult public discourse … It does not follow, however, that, simply because the use of an offensive form of expression may not be prohibited to adults making what the speaker considers a political point, the same latitude must be permitted to children in a public school … As cogently expressed by Judge Newman, “the First Amendment gives a high school student the classroom right to wear Tinker’s armband, but not Cohen’s jacket.” Thomas v. Board of Education, Granville Central School Dist., (1979) (opinion concurring in result).

… The determination of what manner of speech in the classroom or in school assembly is inappropriate properly rests with the school board.

The process of educating our youth for citizenship in public schools is not confined to books, the curriculum, and the civics class; schools must teach by example the shared values of a civilized social order. Consciously or otherwise, teachers — and indeed the older students — demonstrate the appropriate form of civil discourse and political expression by their conduct and deportment in and out of class. Inescapably, like parents, they are role models. The schools, as instruments of the state, may determine that the essential lessons of civil, mature conduct cannot be conveyed in a school that tolerates lewd, indecent, or offensive speech and conduct such as that indulged in by this confused boy.

The pervasive sexual innuendo in Fraser’s speech was plainly offensive to both teachers and students — indeed, to any mature person. By glorifying male sexuality, and in its verbal content, the speech was acutely insulting to teenage girl students. The speech could well be seriously damaging to its less mature audience, many of whom were only 14 years old and on the threshold of awareness of human sexuality. Some students were reported as bewildered by the speech and the reaction of mimicry it provoked.

This Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence has acknowledged limitations on the otherwise absolute interest of the speaker in reaching an unlimited audience where the speech is sexually explicit and the audience may include children. Ginsberg v. New York, (1968).

We have also recognized an interest in protecting minors from exposure to vulgar and offensive spoken language …

We hold that petitioner School District acted entirely within its permissible authority in imposing sanctions upon Fraser in response to his offensively lewd and indecent speech. Unlike the sanctions imposed on the students wearing armbands in Tinker, the penalties imposed in this case were unrelated to any political viewpoint. The First Amendment does not prevent the school officials from determining that to permit a vulgar and lewd speech such as respondent’s would undermine the school’s basic educational mission. A high school assembly or classroom is no place for a sexually explicit monologue directed towards an unsuspecting audience of teenage students. Accordingly, it was perfectly appropriate for the school to disassociate itself to make the point to the pupils that vulgar speech and lewd conduct is wholly inconsistent with the “fundamental values” of public school education …

Respondent contends that the circumstances of his suspension violated due process because he had no way of knowing that the delivery of the speech in question would subject him to disciplinary sanctions. This argument is wholly without merit …

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is


Justice Brennan, concurring in the judgment.

… Having read the full text of respondent’s remarks, I find it difficult to believe that it is the same speech the Court describes. To my mind, the most that can be said about respondent’s speech — and all that need be said — is that, in light of the discretion school officials have to teach high school students how to conduct civil and effective public discourse, and to prevent disruption of school educational activities, it was not unconstitutional for school officials to conclude, under the circumstances of this case, that respondent’s remarks exceeded permissible limits. Thus, while I concur in the Court’s judgment, I write separately to express my understanding of the breadth of the Court’s holding.

… If respondent had given the same speech outside of the school environment, he could not have been penalized simply because government officials considered his language to be inappropriate. Moreover, despite the Court’s characterizations, the language respondent used is far removed from the very narrow class of “obscene” speech which the Court has held is not protected by the First Amendment. It is true, however, that the State has interests in teaching high school students how to conduct civil and effective public discourse and in avoiding disruption of educational school activities. Thus, the Court holds that, under certain circumstances, high school students may properly be reprimanded for giving a speech at a high school assembly which school officials conclude disrupted the school’s educational mission. Respondent’s speech may well have been protected had he given it in school but under different circumstances, where the school’s legitimate interests in teaching and maintaining civil public discourse were less weighty.

In the present case, school officials sought only to ensure that a high school assembly proceed in an orderly manner. There is no suggestion that school officials attempted to regulate respondent’s speech because they disagreed with the views he sought to express …

… Thus, I concur in the judgment reversing the decision of the Court of Appeals.

Justice Marshall, dissenting.

I agree with the principles that Justice Brennan sets out in his opinion concurring in the judgment. I dissent from the Court’s decision, however, because, in my view, the School District failed to demonstrate that respondent’s remarks were indeed disruptive. The District Court and Court of Appeals conscientiously applied Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., (1969) and concluded that the School District had not demonstrated any disruption of the educational process. I recognize that the school administration must be given wide latitude to determine what forms of conduct are inconsistent with the school’s educational mission; nevertheless, where speech is involved, we may not unquestioningly accept a teacher’s or administrator’s assertion that certain pure speech interfered with education. Here the School District, despite a clear opportunity to do so, failed to bring in evidence sufficient to convince either of the two lower courts that education at Bethel School was disrupted by respondent’s speech. I therefore see no reason to disturb the Court of Appeals’ judgment.

… I would affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988)

484 U.S. 260 (1988)

Vote: 5-3
Decision: Reversed
Majority: White, joined by Rehnquist, Stevens, O’Connor and Scalia
Dissent: Brennan, joined by Marshall and Blackmun

Note: At the time of this case, this newspaper still had to be submitted to a printer with sufficient time for printing. Desktop publishing was not yet available or in common use.

Justice White delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns the extent to which educators may exercise editorial control over the contents of a high school newspaper produced as part of the school’s journalism curriculum.

Petitioners are the Hazelwood School District in St. Louis County, Missouri; various school officials; Robert Eugene Reynolds, the principal of Hazelwood East High School; and Howard Emerson, a teacher in the school district. Respondents are three former Hazelwood East students who were staff members of Spectrum, the school newspaper. They contend that school officials violated their First Amendment rights by deleting two pages of articles from the May 13, 1983, issue of Spectrum.

Spectrum was written and edited by the Journalism II class at Hazelwood East. The newspaper was published every three weeks or so during the 1982-1983 school year. More than 4,500 copies of the newspaper were distributed during that year to students, school personnel, and members of the community.

… The Journalism II course was taught by Robert Stergos for most of the 1982-1983 academic year. Stergos left Hazelwood East to take a job in private industry on April 29, 1983, when the May 13 edition of Spectrum was nearing completion, and petitioner Emerson took his place as newspaper adviser for the remaining weeks of the term.

The practice at Hazelwood East during the spring 1983 semester was for the journalism teacher to submit page proofs of each Spectrum issue to Principal Reynolds for his review prior to publication. On May 10, Emerson delivered the proofs of the May 13 edition to Reynolds, who objected to two of the articles scheduled to appear in that edition. One of the stories described three Hazelwood East students’ experiences with pregnancy; the other discussed the impact of divorce on students at the school.

Reynolds was concerned that, although the pregnancy story used false names “to keep the identity of these girls a secret,” the pregnant students still might be identifiable from the text. He also believed that the article’s references to sexual activity and birth control were inappropriate for some of the younger students at the school. In addition, Reynolds was concerned that a student identified by name in the divorce story had complained that her father “wasn’t spending enough time with my mom, my sister and I” prior to the divorce, “was always out of town on business or out late playing cards with the guys,” and “always argued about everything” with her mother. Reynolds believed that the student’s parents should have been given an opportunity to respond to these remarks or to consent to their publication. He was unaware that Emerson had deleted the student’s name from the final version of the article.

Reynolds believed that there was no time to make the necessary changes in the stories before the scheduled press run and that the newspaper would not appear before the end of the school year if printing were delayed to any significant extent. He concluded that his only options under the circumstances were to publish a four-page newspaper instead of the planned six-page newspaper, eliminating the two pages on which the offending stories appeared, or to publish no newspaper at all. Accordingly, he directed Emerson to withhold from publication the two pages containing the stories on pregnancy and divorce. He informed his superiors of the decision, and they concurred.

Respondents subsequently commenced this action in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri seeking a declaration that their First Amendment rights had been violated, injunctive relief, and monetary damages. After a bench trial, the District Court denied an injunction, holding that no First Amendment violation had occurred … The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed …

We granted certiorari and we now reverse.

… We have nonetheless recognized that the First Amendment rights of students in the public schools “are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings,” Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986) and must be “applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.” Tinker. A school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its “basic educational mission,” Fraser, even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school … It is in this context that respondents’ First Amendment claims must be considered.

We deal first with the question whether Spectrum may appropriately be characterized as a forum for public expression. The public schools do not possess all of the attributes of streets, parks, and other traditional public forums that “time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions.” Hague v. CIO (1939). Hence, school facilities may be deemed to be public forums only if school authorities have “by policy or by practice” opened those facilities “for indiscriminate use by the general public,” Perry Education Assn. v. Perry Local Educators’ Assn. (1983), or by some segment of the public, such as student organizations. Id … School officials did not evince either “by policy or by practice” any intent to open the pages of Spectrum to “indiscriminate use,” by its student reporters and editors, or by the student body generally. Instead, they “reserve[d] the forum for its intended purpos[e],” as a supervised learning experience for journalism students. Accordingly, school officials were entitled to regulate the contents of Spectrum in any reasonable manner. It is this standard, rather than our decision in Tinker, that governs this case.

The question whether the First Amendment requires a school to tolerate particular student speech – the question that we addressed in Tinker– is different from the question whether the First Amendment requires a school affirmatively to promote particular student speech … The latter question concerns educators’ authority over school-sponsored publications, theatrical productions, and other expressive activities that students, parents, and members of the public might reasonably perceive to bear the imprimatur of the school. These activities may fairly be characterized as part of the school curriculum, whether or not they occur in a traditional classroom setting, so long as they are supervised by faculty members and designed to impart particular knowledge or skills to student participants and audiences.

Educators are entitled to exercise greater control over this second form of student expression to assure that participants learn whatever lessons the activity is designed to teach, that readers or listeners are not exposed to material that may be inappropriate for their level of maturity, and that the views of the individual speaker are not erroneously attributed to the school … A school must be able to set high standards for the student speech that is disseminated under its auspices – standards that may be higher than those demanded by some newspaper publishers or theatrical producers in the “real” world – and may refuse to disseminate student speech that does not meet those standards. In addition, a school must be able to take into account the emotional maturity of the intended audience in determining whether to disseminate student speech on potentially sensitive topics, which might range from the existence of Santa Claus in an elementary school setting to the particulars of teenage sexual activity in a high school setting. A school must also retain the authority to refuse to sponsor student speech that might reasonably be perceived to advocate drug or alcohol use, irresponsible sex, or conduct otherwise inconsistent with “the shared values of a civilized social order,” Fraser, or to associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy. Otherwise, the schools would be unduly constrained from fulfilling their role as “a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.” Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

… [W]e hold that educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.

This standard is consistent with our oft-expressed view that the education of the Nation’s youth is primarily the responsibility of parents, teachers, and state and local school officials, and not of federal judges. It is only when the decision to censor a school-sponsored publication, theatrical production, or other vehicle of student expression has no valid educational purpose that the First Amendment is so “directly and sharply implicate as to require judicial intervention to protect students’ constitutional rights.

We also conclude that Principal Reynolds acted reasonably in requiring the deletion from the May 13 issue of Spectrum of the pregnancy article, the divorce article, and the remaining articles that were to appear on the same pages of the newspaper.

The initial paragraph of the pregnancy article declared that “[a]ll names have been changed to keep the identity of these girls a secret.” … Indeed, a teacher at the school credibly testified that she could positively identify at least one of the girls and possibly all three. It is likely that many students at Hazelwood East would have been at least as successful in identifying the girls. Reynolds therefore could reasonably have feared that the article violated whatever pledge of anonymity had been given to the pregnant students. In addition, he could reasonably have been concerned that the article was not sufficiently sensitive to the privacy interests of the students’ boyfriends and parents, who were discussed in the article but who were given no opportunity to consent to its publication or to offer a response. The article did not contain graphic accounts of sexual activity. The girls did comment in the article, however, concerning their sexual histories and their use or nonuse of birth control. It was not unreasonable for the principal to have concluded that such frank talk was inappropriate in a school-sponsored publication distributed to 14-year-old freshmen and presumably taken home to be read by students’ even younger brothers and sisters.

The student who was quoted by name in the version of the divorce article seen by Principal Reynolds made comments sharply critical of her father. The principal could reasonably have concluded that an individual publicly identified as an inattentive parent – indeed, as one who chose “playing cards with the guys” over home and family – was entitled to an opportunity to defend himself as a matter of journalistic fairness. These concerns were shared by both of Spectrum’s faculty advisers for the 1982-1983 school year, who testified that they would not have allowed the article to be printed without deletion of the student’s name.

… It is true that Reynolds did not verify whether the necessary modifications could still have been made in the articles, and that Emerson did not volunteer the information that printing could be delayed until the changes were made. We nonetheless agree with the District Court that the decision to excise the two pages containing the problematic articles was reasonable given the particular circumstances of this case. These circumstances included the very recent replacement of Stergos by Emerson, who may not have been entirely familiar with Spectrum editorial and production procedures, and the pressure felt by Reynolds to make an immediate decision so that students would not be deprived of the newspaper altogether.

… Finally, we conclude that the principal’s decision to delete two pages of Spectrum, rather than to delete only the offending articles or to require that they be modified, was reasonable under the circumstances as he understood them. Accordingly, no violation of First Amendment rights occurred.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit is therefore


Justice Brennan, with whom Justice Marshall and Justice Blackmun join, dissenting.

When the young men and women of Hazelwood East High School registered for Journalism II, they expected a civics lesson. 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. …” “[A]t the beginning of each school year,” the student journalists published a Statement of Policy – tacitly approved each year by school authorities – announcing their expectation that “Spectrum, as a student-press publication, accepts all rights implied by the First Amendment. … Only speech that `materially and substantially interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline’ can be found unacceptable and therefore prohibited.” The school board itself affirmatively guaranteed the students of Journalism II an atmosphere conducive to fostering such an appreciation and exercising the full panoply of rights associated with a free student press. “School sponsored student publications,” it vowed, “will not restrict free expression or diverse viewpoints within the rules of responsible journalism.”

… In my view the principal broke more than just a promise. He violated the First Amendment’s prohibitions against censorship of any student expression that neither disrupts classwork nor invades the rights of others, and against any censorship that is not narrowly tailored to serve its purpose.

… [The Court has never suggested] the distinction, which the Court today finds dispositive, between school-sponsored and incidental student expression.

Even if we were writing on a clean slate, I would reject the Court’s rationale for abandoning Tinker in this case. The Court offers no more than an obscure tangle of three excuses to afford educators “greater control” over school-sponsored speech than the Tinker test would permit: the public educator’s prerogative to control curriculum; the pedagogical interest in shielding the high school audience from objectionable viewpoints and sensitive topics; and the school’s need to dissociate itself from student expression. None of the excuses, once disentangled, supports the distinction that the Court draws. Tinker fully addresses the first concern; the second is illegitimate; and the third is readily achievable through less oppressive means …

Since the censorship served no legitimate pedagogical purpose, it cannot by any stretch of the imagination have been designed to prevent “materia[l] disrup[tion of] classwork,” Tinker. Nor did the censorship fall within the category that Tinker described as necessary to prevent student expression from “inva[ding] the rights of others.” If that term is to have any content, it must be limited to rights that are protected by law.”Any yardstick less exacting than [that] could result in school officials curtailing speech at the slightest fear of disturbance,” a prospect that would be completely at odds with this Court’s pronouncement that the “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough [even in the public school context] to overcome the right to freedom of expression.” Tinker. And, as the Court of Appeals correctly reasoned, whatever journalistic impropriety these articles may have contained, they could not conceivably be tortious, much less criminal.

Finally, even if the majority were correct that the principal could constitutionally have censored the objectionable material, I would emphatically object to the brutal manner in which he did so. Where “[t]he separation of legitimate from illegitimate speech calls for more sensitive tools,” the principal used a paper shredder. He objected to some material in two articles, but excised six entire articles. He did not so much as inquire into obvious alternatives, such as precise deletions or additions (one of which had already been made), rearranging the layout, or delaying publication. Such unthinking contempt for individual rights is intolerable from any state official. It is particularly insidious from one to whom the public entrusts the task of inculcating in its youth an appreciation for the cherished democratic liberties that our Constitution guarantees.

… Instead of “teach[ing] children to respect the diversity of ideas that is fundamental to the American system,” and “that our Constitution is a living reality, not parchment preserved under glass,” the Court today “teach[es] youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.” West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). The young men and women of Hazelwood East expected a civics lesson, but not the one the Court teaches them today.

I dissent.

Morse v. Frederick (2007)

551 U.S. 393 (2007)

Vote: 5-4
Decision: Reversed
Majority: Roberts, joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito
Concurrence: Thomas
Concurrence: Alito, joined by Kennedy
Concur/Dissent: Breyer
Dissent: Stevens, joined by Souter and Ginsburg

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court.

At a school-sanctioned and school-supervised event, a high school principal saw some of her students unfurl a large banner conveying a message she reasonably regarded as promoting illegal drug use. Consistent with established school policy prohibiting such messages at school events, the principal directed the students to take down the banner. One student–among those who had brought the banner to the event–refused to do so. The principal confiscated the banner and later suspended the student. The Ninth Circuit held that the principal’s actions violated the First Amendment, and that the student could sue the principal for damages.

… We conclude that the school officials in this case did not violate the First Amendment by confiscating the pro-drug banner and suspending the student responsible for it.

On January 24, 2002, the Olympic Torch Relay passed through Juneau, Alaska, on its way to the winter games in Salt Lake City, Utah. The torchbearers were to proceed along a street in front of Juneau-Douglas High School (JDHS) while school was in session. Petitioner Deborah Morse, the school principal, decided to permit staff and students to participate in the Torch Relay as an approved social event or class trip. Students were allowed to leave class to observe the relay from either side of the street. Teachers and administrative officials monitored the students’ actions.

Respondent Joseph Frederick, a JDHS senior, was late to school that day. When he arrived, he joined his friends (all but one of whom were JDHS students) across the street from the school to watch the event. Not all the students waited patiently. Some became rambunctious, throwing plastic cola bottles and snowballs and scuffling with their classmates. As the torchbearers and camera crews passed by, Frederick and his friends unfurled a 14-foot banner bearing the phrase: “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS.” The large banner was easily readable by the students on the other side of the street.

Principal Morse immediately crossed the street and demanded that the banner be taken down. Everyone but Frederick complied. Morse confiscated the banner and told Frederick to report to her office, where she suspended him for 10 days. Morse later explained that she told Frederick to take the banner down because she thought it encouraged illegal drug use, in violation of established school policy. Juneau School Board Policy No. 5520 states: “The Board specifically prohibits any assembly or public expression that … advocates the use of substances that are illegal to minors. …” In addition, Juneau School Board Policy No. 5850 subjects “[p]upils who participate in approved social events and class trips” to the same student conduct rules that apply during the regular school program.

Frederick administratively appealed his suspension, but the Juneau School District Superintendent upheld it, limiting it to time served (8 days). In a memorandum setting forth his reasons, the superintendent determined that Frederick had displayed his banner “in the midst of his fellow students, during school hours, at a school-sanctioned activity.” He further explained that Frederick “was not disciplined because the principal of the school ‘disagreed’ with his message, but because his speech appeared to advocate the use of illegal drugs.” The superintendent continued:

“The common-sense understanding of the phrase ‘bong hits’ is that it is a reference to a means of smoking marijuana. Given [Frederick’s] inability or unwillingness to express any other credible meaning for the phrase, I can only agree with the principal and countless others who saw the banner as advocating the use of illegal drugs. [Frederick’s] speech was not political. He was not advocating the legalization of marijuana or promoting a religious belief. He was displaying a fairly silly message promoting illegal drug usage in the midst of a school activity, for the benefit of television cameras covering the Torch Relay. [Frederick’s] speech was potentially disruptive to the event and clearly disruptive of and inconsistent with the school’s educational mission to educate students about the dangers of illegal drugs and to discourage their use.”

Relying on our decision in Fraser, the superintendent concluded that the principal’s actions were permissible because Frederick’s banner was “speech or action that intrudes upon the work of the schools.” The Juneau School District Board of Education upheld the suspension.

Frederick then filed suit … alleging that the school board and Morse had violated his First Amendment rights. He sought declaratory and injunctive relief, unspecified compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. The District Court granted summary judgment for the school board and Morse, ruling that they were entitled to qualified immunity and that they had not infringed Frederick’s First Amendment rights …

The Ninth Circuit reversed. Deciding that Frederick acted during a “school-authorized activit[y],” and “proceed[ing] on the basis that the banner expressed a positive sentiment about marijuana use,” the court nonetheless found a violation of Frederick’s First Amendment rights because the school punished Frederick without demonstrating that his speech gave rise to a “risk of substantial disruption.” …

We granted certiorari on two questions: whether Frederick had a First Amendment right to wield his banner, and, if so, whether that right was so clearly established that the principal may be held liable for damages. We resolve the first question against Frederick, and therefore have no occasion to reach the second.

At the outset, we reject Frederick’s argument that this is not a school speech case–as has every other authority to address the question. The event occurred during normal school hours. It was sanctioned by Principal Morse “as an approved social event or class trip,” and the school district’s rules expressly provide that pupils in “approved social events and class trips are subject to district rules for student conduct.” Teachers and administrators were interspersed among the students and charged with supervising them. The high school band and cheerleaders performed. Frederick, standing among other JDHS students across the street from the school, directed his banner toward the school, making it plainly visible to most students … There is some uncertainty at the outer boundaries as to when courts should apply school-speech precedents, but not on these facts.

The message on Frederick’s banner is cryptic. It is no doubt offensive to some, perhaps amusing to others. To still others, it probably means nothing at all. Frederick himself claimed “that the words were just nonsense meant to attract television cameras.” But Principal Morse thought the banner would be interpreted by those viewing it as promoting illegal drug use, and that interpretation is plainly a reasonable one.

… We agree with Morse. At least two interpretations of the words on the banner demonstrate that the sign advocated the use of illegal drugs. First, the phrase could be interpreted as an imperative: “[Take] bong hits …”–a message equivalent, as Morse explained in her declaration, to “smoke marijuana” or “use an illegal drug.” Alternatively, the phrase could be viewed as celebrating drug use–“bong hits [are a good thing],” or “[we take] bong hits”–and we discern no meaningful distinction between celebrating illegal drug use in the midst of fellow students and outright advocacy or promotion.

The pro-drug interpretation of the banner gains further plausibility given the paucity of alternative meanings the banner might bear. The best Frederick can come up with is that the banner is “meaningless and funny.” The dissent similarly refers to the sign’s message as “curious,” “ambiguous,” “nonsense,” “ridiculous,” “obscure,” “silly,” “quixotic,” and “stupid.” Gibberish is surely a possible interpretation of the words on the banner, but it is not the only one, and dismissing the banner as meaningless ignores its undeniable reference to illegal drugs.

… Elsewhere in its opinion, the dissent emphasizes the importance of political speech and the need to foster “national debate about a serious issue,” as if to suggest that the banner is political speech. But not even Frederick argues that the banner conveys any sort of political or religious message. Contrary to the dissent’s suggestion, this is plainly not a case about political debate over the criminalization of drug use or possession.

The question thus becomes whether a principal may, consistent with the First Amendment, restrict student speech at a school event, when that speech is reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use. We hold that she may.

… The essential facts of Tinker are quite stark, implicating concerns at the heart of the First Amendment. The students sought to engage in political speech, using the armbands to express their “disapproval of the Vietnam hostilities and their advocacy of a truce, to make their views known, and, by their example, to influence others to adopt them.” Political speech, of course, is “at the core of what the First Amendment is designed to protect.” Virginia v. Black (2003). The only interest the Court discerned underlying the school’s actions was the “mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint,” or “an urgent wish to avoid the controversy which might result from the expression.” Tinker.

… For present purposes, it is enough to distill from Fraser two basic principles. First, Fraser’s holding demonstrates that “the constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings.” Had Fraser delivered the same speech in a public forum outside the school context, it would have been protected. Cohen v. California, (1971). Second, Fraser established that the mode of analysis set forth in Tinker is not absolute. Whatever approach Fraser employed, it certainly did not conduct the “substantial disruption” analysis prescribed by Tinker

… The “special characteristics of the school environment,” and the governmental interest in stopping student drug abuse–reflected in the policies of Congress and myriad school boards, including JDHS–allow schools to restrict student expression that they reasonably regard as promoting illegal drug use. Tinker warned that schools may not prohibit student speech because of “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance” … The danger here is far more serious and palpable. The particular concern to prevent student drug abuse at issue here, embodied in established school policy, extends well beyond an abstract desire to avoid controversy.

Petitioners urge us to adopt the broader rule that Frederick’s speech is proscribable because it is plainly “offensive” … We think this stretches Fraser too far; that case should not be read to encompass any speech that could fit under some definition of “offensive.” After all, much political and religious speech might be perceived as offensive to some. The concern here is not that Frederick’s speech was offensive, but that it was reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use.

Although accusing this decision of doing “serious violence to the First Amendment” by authorizing “viewpoint discrimination,” the dissent concludes that “it might well be appropriate to tolerate some targeted viewpoint discrimination in this unique setting.” Nor do we understand the dissent to take the position that schools are required to tolerate student advocacy of illegal drug use at school events, even if that advocacy falls short of inviting “imminent” lawless action. And even the dissent recognizes that the issues here are close enough that the principal should not be held liable in damages, but should instead enjoy qualified immunity for her actions. Stripped of rhetorical flourishes, then, the debate between the dissent and this opinion is less about constitutional first principles than about whether Frederick’s banner constitutes promotion of illegal drug use. We have explained our view that it does. The dissent’s contrary view on that relatively narrow question hardly justifies sounding the First Amendment bugle.

School principals have a difficult job, and a vitally important one. When Frederick suddenly and unexpectedly unfurled his banner, Morse had to decide to act–or not act–on the spot. It was reasonable for her to conclude that the banner promoted illegal drug use–in violation of established school policy–and that failing to act would send a powerful message to the students in her charge, including Frederick, about how serious the school was about the dangers of illegal drug use. The First Amendment does not require schools to tolerate at school events student expression that contributes to those dangers.

The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Stevens, with whom Justice Souter and Justice Ginsburg join, dissenting.

… I agree with the Court that the principal should not be held liable for pulling down Frederick’s banner. I would hold, however, that the school’s interest in protecting its students from exposure to speech “reasonably regarded as promoting illegal drug use,” cannot justify disciplining Frederick for his attempt to make an ambiguous statement to a television audience simply because it contained an oblique reference to drugs. The First Amendment demands more, indeed, much more.

The Court holds otherwise only after laboring to establish two uncontroversial propositions: first, that the constitutional rights of students in school settings are not coextensive with the rights of adults, and second, that deterring drug use by schoolchildren is a valid and terribly important interest. As to the first, I take the Court’s point that the message on Frederick’s banner is not necessarily protected speech, even though it unquestionably would have been had the banner been unfurled elsewhere. As to the second, I am willing to assume that the Court is correct that the pressing need to deter drug use supports JDHS’s rule prohibiting willful conduct that expressly “advocates the use of substances that are illegal to minors.” But it is a gross non sequitur to draw from these two unremarkable propositions the remarkable conclusion that the school may suppress student speech that was never meant to persuade anyone to do anything.

In my judgment, the First Amendment protects student speech if the message itself neither violates a permissible rule nor expressly advocates conduct that is illegal and harmful to students. This nonsense banner does neither, and the Court does serious violence to the First Amendment in upholding–indeed, lauding–a school’s decision to punish Frederick for expressing a view with which it disagreed.

… Even if advocacy could somehow be wedged into Frederick’s obtuse reference to marijuana, that advocacy was at best subtle and ambiguous …

Among other things, the Court’s ham-handed, categorical approach is deaf to the constitutional imperative to permit unfettered debate, even among high-school students, about the wisdom of the war on drugs or of legalizing marijuana for medicinal use …

Consider, too, that the school district’s rule draws no distinction between alcohol and marijuana, but applies evenhandedly to all “substances that are illegal to minors.” Given the tragic consequences of teenage alcohol consumption–drinking causes far more fatal accidents than the misuse of marijuana–the school district’s interest in deterring teenage alcohol use is at least comparable to its interest in preventing marijuana use. Under the Court’s reasoning, must the First Amendment give way whenever a school seeks to punish a student for any speech mentioning beer, or indeed anything else that might be deemed risky to teenagers? While I find it hard to believe the Court would support punishing Frederick for flying a “WINE SiPS 4 JESUS” banner–which could quite reasonably be construed either as a protected religious message or as a pro-alcohol message–the breathtaking sweep of its opinion suggests it would.

Although this case began with a silly, nonsensical banner, it ends with the Court inventing out of whole cloth a special First Amendment rule permitting the censorship of any student speech that mentions drugs, at least so long as someone could perceive that speech to contain a latent pro-drug message … In the national debate about a serious issue, it is the expression of the minority’s viewpoint that most demands the protection of the First Amendment. Whatever the better policy may be, a full and frank discussion of the costs and benefits of the attempt to prohibit the use of marijuana is far wiser than suppression of speech because it is unpopular.

I respectfully dissent.

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. (2021)

594 U.S. ___ (2021)

Vote: 8-1
Decision: Affirmed
Majority: Breyer, joined by Roberts, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett
Concurrence: Alito, joined by Gorsuch
Dissent: Thomas

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court.

A public high school student used, and transmitted to her Snapchat friends, vulgar language and gestures criticizing both the school and the school’s cheerleading team. The student’s speech took place outside of school hours and away from the school’s campus. In response, the school suspended the student for a year from the cheerleading team. We must decide whether the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit correctly held that the school’s decision violated the First Amendment. Although we do not agree with the reasoning of the Third Circuit panel’s majority, we do agree with its conclusion that the school’s disciplinary action violated the First Amendment.

B. L. (who, together with her parents, is a respondent in this case) was a student at Mahanoy Area High School, a public school in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania. At the end of her freshman year, B. L. tried out for a position on the school’s varsity cheerleading squad and for right fielder on a private softball team. She did not make the varsity cheerleading team or get her preferred softball position, but she was offered a spot on the cheerleading squad’s junior varsity team. B. L. did not accept the coach’s decision with good grace, particularly because the squad coaches had placed an entering freshman on the varsity team.

That weekend, B. L. and a friend visited the Cocoa Hut, a local convenience store. There, B. L. used her smartphone to post two photos on Snapchat, a social media application that allows users to post photos and videos that disappear after a set period of time. B. L. posted the images to her Snapchat “story,” a feature of the application that allows any person in the user’s “friend” group (B. L. had about 250 “friends”) to view the images for a 24 hour period.

The first image B. L. posted showed B. L. and a friend with middle fingers raised; it bore the caption: “Fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.” … The second image was blank but for a caption, which read: “Love how me and [another student] get told we need a year of jv before we make varsity but tha[t] doesn’t matter to anyone else?” The caption also contained an upside-down smiley-face emoji.

B.L.’s Snapchat “friends” included other Mahanoy Area High School students, some of whom also belonged to the cheerleading squad. At least one of them, using a separate cellphone, took pictures of B. L.’s posts and shared them with other members of the cheerleading squad. One of the students who received these photos showed them to her mother (who was a cheerleading squad coach), and the images spread. That week, several cheerleaders and other students approached the cheerleading coaches “visibly upset” about B. L.’s posts. Questions about the posts persisted during an Algebra class taught by one of the two coaches.

After discussing the matter with the school principal, the coaches decided that because the posts used profanity in connection with a school extracurricular activity, they violated team and school rules. As a result, the coaches suspended B. L. from the junior varsity cheerleading squad for the upcoming year. B. L.’s subsequent apologies did not move school officials. The school’s athletic director, principal, superintendent, and school board, all affirmed B. L.’s suspension from the team. In response, B. L., together with her parents, filed this lawsuit in Federal District Court.

The District Court found in B. L.’s favor. It first granted a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction ordering the school to reinstate B. L. to the cheerleading team. In granting B. L.’s subsequent motion for summary judgment, the District Court found that B. L.’s Snapchats had not caused substantial disruption at the school … Consequently, the District Court declared that B. L.’s punishment violated the First Amendment, and it awarded B. L. nominal damages and attorneys’ fees and ordered the school to expunge her disciplinary record.

On appeal, a panel of the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s conclusion … In so doing, the majority noted that this Court had previously held in Tinker that a public high school could not constitutionally prohibit a peaceful student political demonstration consisting of “ ‘pure speech’” on school property during the school day … In reaching its conclusion in Tinker, this Court emphasized that there was no evidence the student protest would “substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge upon the rights of other students.” But the Court also said that: “[C]onduct by [a] student, in class or out of it, which for any reason—whether it stems from time, place, or type of behavior—materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is … not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.”

Many courts have taken this statement as setting a standard—a standard that allows schools considerable freedom on campus to discipline students for conduct that the First Amendment might otherwise protect. But here, the panel majority held that this additional freedom did “not apply to off-campus speech,” which it defined as “speech that is outside school-owned, -operated, or -supervised channels and that is not reasonably interpreted as bearing the school’s imprimatur.” … Because B. L.’s speech took place off campus, the panel concluded that the Tinker standard did not apply and the school consequently could not discipline B. L. for engaging in a form of pure speech.

The school district filed a petition for certiorari in this Court, asking us to decide “[w]hether [Tinker], which holds that public school officials may regulate speech that would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school, applies to student speech that occurs off campus.” … We granted the petition.

We have made clear that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression,” even “at the school house gate.” Tinker. But we have also made clear that courts must apply the First Amendment “in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.” Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, (1988). One such characteristic, which we have stressed, is the fact that schools at times stand in loco parentis, i.e., in the place of parents. Bethel School Dist. v. Fraser, (1986).

… Unlike the Third Circuit, we do not believe the special characteristics that give schools additional license to regulate student speech always disappear when a school regulates speech that takes place off campus. The school’s regulatory interests remain significant in some off-campus circumstances. The parties’ briefs, and those of amici, list several types of off-campus behavior that may call for school regulation. These include serious or severe bullying or harassment targeting particular individuals; threats aimed at teachers or other students; the failure to follow rules concerning lessons, the writing of papers, the use of computers, or participation in other online school activities; and breaches of school security devices, including material maintained within school computers.

Even B. L. herself and the amici supporting her would redefine the Third Circuit’s off-campus/on-campus distinction, treating as on campus: all times when the school is responsible for the student; the school’s immediate surroundings; travel en route to and from the school; all speech taking place over school laptops or on a school’s website; speech taking place during remote learning; activities taken for school credit; and communications to school e-mail accounts or phones … And it may be that speech related to extracurricular activities, such as team sports, would also receive special treatment under B. L.’s proposed rule …

We are uncertain as to the length or content of any such list of appropriate exceptions or carveouts to the Third Circuit majority’s rule. That rule, basically, if not entirely, would deny the off-campus applicability of Tinker’s highly general statement about the nature of a school’s special interests. Particularly given the advent of computer-based learning, we hesitate to determine precisely which of many school-related off-campus activities belong on such a list. Neither do we now know how such a list might vary, depending upon a student’s age, the nature of the school’s off-campus activity, or the impact upon the school itself. Thus, we do not now set forth a broad, highly general First Amendment rule stating just what counts as “off campus” speech and whether or how ordinary First Amendment standards must give way off campus to a school’s special need to prevent, e.g., substantial disruption of learning-related activities or the protection of those who make up a school community.

We can, however, mention three features of off-campus speech that often, even if not always, distinguish schools’ efforts to regulate that speech from their efforts to regulate on-campus speech. Those features diminish the strength of the unique educational characteristics that might call for special First Amendment leeway.

First, a school, in relation to off-campus speech, will rarely stand in loco parentis. The doctrine of in loco parentis treats school administrators as standing in the place of students’ parents under circumstances where the children’s actual parents cannot protect, guide, and discipline them. Geographically speaking, off-campus speech will normally fall within the zone of parental, rather than school-related, responsibility.

Second, from the student speaker’s perspective, regulations of off-campus speech, when coupled with regulations of on-campus speech, include all the speech a student utters during the full 24-hour day. That means courts must be more skeptical of a school’s efforts to regulate off-campus speech, for doing so may mean the student cannot engage in that kind of speech at all. When it comes to political or religious speech that occurs outside school or a school program or activity, the school will have a heavy burden to justify intervention.

Third, the school itself has an interest in protecting a student’s unpopular expression, especially when the expression takes place off campus. America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy. Our representative democracy only works if we protect the “marketplace of ideas.”

… Given the many different kinds of off-campus speech, the different potential school-related and circumstance-specific justifications, and the differing extent to which those justifications may call for First Amendment leeway, we can, as a general matter, say little more than this: Taken together, these three features of much off-campus speech mean that the leeway the First Amendment grants to schools in light of their special characteristics is diminished. We leave for future cases to decide where, when, and how these features mean the speaker’s off-campus location will make the critical difference. This case can, however, provide one example.

Consider B. L.’s speech. Putting aside the vulgar language, the listener would hear criticism, of the team, the team’s coaches, and the school—in a word or two, criticism of the rules of a community of which B. L. forms a part. This criticism did not involve features that would place it outside the First Amendment’s ordinary protection … To the contrary, B. L. uttered the kind of pure speech to which, were she an adult, the First Amendment would provide strong protection. Snyder v. Phelps, (2011).

Consider too when, where, and how B. L. spoke. Her posts appeared outside of school hours from a location outside the school. She did not identify the school in her posts or target any member of the school community with vulgar or abusive language. B. L. also transmitted her speech through a personal cellphone, to an audience consisting of her private circle of Snapchat friends. These features of her speech, while risking transmission to the school itself, nonetheless … diminish the school’s interest in punishing B. L.’s utterance.

But what about the school’s interest, here primarily an interest in prohibiting students from using vulgar language to criticize a school team or its coaches—at least when that criticism might well be transmitted to other students, team members, coaches, and faculty? We can break that general interest into three parts.

First, we consider the school’s interest in teaching good manners and consequently in punishing the use of vulgar language aimed at part of the school community … The strength of this anti-vulgarity interest is weakened considerably by the fact that B. L. spoke outside the school on her own time …

Second, the school argues that it was trying to prevent disruption, if not within the classroom, then within the bounds of a school-sponsored extracurricular activity. But we can find no evidence in the record of the sort of “substantial disruption” of a school activity or a threatened harm to the rights of others that might justify the school’s action … The alleged disturbance here does not meet Tinker’s demanding standard.

Third, the school presented some evidence that expresses (at least indirectly) a concern for team morale. One of the coaches testified that the school decided to suspend B. L., not because of any specific negative impact upon a particular member of the school community, but “based on the fact that there was negativity put out there that could impact students in the school.” There is little else, however, that suggests any serious decline in team morale—to the point where it could create a substantial interference in, or disruption of, the school’s efforts to maintain team cohesion. As we have previously said, simple “undifferentiated fear or apprehension … is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.” Tinker. It might be tempting to dismiss B. L.’s words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections discussed herein. But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary …

… The judgment of the Third Circuit is therefore affirmed.

It is so ordered.


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Civil Rights and Liberties Copyright © 2023 by Rorie Spill Solberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.